Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole took up where her predecessor, Drew Lewis, left off and urged Congress yesterday to enact legislation conferring sweeping antitrust immunity on operators of American ships carrying cargo on international routes.

Dole told the House merchant marine subcommittee that the shipping antitrust bill "will lead to greater long-term planning, service innovation and efficiency, to the benefit of carriers and shippers alike."

The bill is sponsored by Rep. Mario Biaggi (D-N.Y.), chairman of the subcommittee. It would give operators of American cargo liners nearly total freedom to join international cartels of freight carriers, known as conferences, and to participate in their rate-setting activities. Shipping lines would be freed from most regulations limiting their contracts with shippers, and would be authorized to offer through rates to inland destinations without fear of antitrust action.

Dole said that the bill is consistent with administration policy of "minimizing government intervention in business" and would help put operators of U.S.-flag vessels "on an equal footing with foreign carriers" in competing for cargo.

She acknowledged that "there has been some criticism of maritime reform on the grounds that the benefits it would provide will come at the expense of the users of ocean shipping services," but she said "that is not the case." Major users of ocean shipping service, such as the chemical industry, have endorsed the legislation because it will improve the overall efficiency of the merchant marine, Dole said.

The Senate approved a similar bill earlier this month. The House bill is nearly identical to a measure that was approved by a 350-33 vote in the last session, and the skids have been greased for prompt approval of the new version. Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee Chairman Rep. Walter B. Jones (D-N.C.) has scheduled the bill for markup by the full committee today.

The only possible obstacle to quick passage lies in the House Judiciary Committee. Judiciary Committee Chairman Peter Rodino (D-N.J.) accepted the bill last year, but reportedly was embarrassed by a CBS-TV news program that depicted the measure as a giveaway to maritime interests and showed him as uninformed and indecisive about it.