A Virginia Senate committee today set aside until next year a measure designed to help the State Corporation Commission expanding the regulatory panel from three to five members.

Separately, another Senate panel appeared ready to approve a bill that would force the agency to grant or reject requests for utility rate increases within eight months -- or have them go into effect automatically.

The length of time the commission can hold up a rate increase before voting it up or down is one of the longest in the nation," said Del. Gerald L. Baliles (D-Richmond), who wants the SCC to accelerate its decision-making process.

Baliles, the bill's sponsor, argued that he is not trying to tell the SCC how to rule but wants only to speed its actions. He complained that the powerful agency, which regulates banks, insurance companies, railroads and other corporations as well as utilities, has sometimes taken up to 22 months or more to rule on a utility increase request.

As a result, he said, by the time one request is granted, another request is being filed.

State Sen. Clive L. DuVal II (D-Fairfax) today questioned whether setting a time limit on the SCC's considerations would help utility customers.

"If the commission doesn't decide on the application in eight months, then the rate increase will be deemed reasonable," said DuVal, who voted against the bill when it was narrowly defeated earlier this week in a Senate committee after easily passing in the House.

The measure, however, will be taken up again next Monday, DuVal said. He noted that several lawmakers expected to favor the legislation had been absent at the last meeting and that the panel's chairman had decided to order the bill reconsidered.

When the SCC-expansion bill cleared the House last week, critics of the agency said they hoped two new members would bring more consumer representation to the commission and help current commissioners handle their increasingly complex decision-making powers.

State Sen. Joseph V. Gartlan Jr. (D-Fairfax) said today the SCC expansion bill had gotten "further through the Assembly than ever before," and he said he did not really object to a Senate committee's decision to study the matter further.

"We want to get readings on how other states deal with their regulatory commissions," said Gartlan, who cautioned that increasing the size of the SCC would not necessarily affect rate-making by the agency.

"The same people will elect them, said Gartlan. In the past commissioners selected by the Assembly have been viewed by consumer groups as too willing to grant rate increases to utility firms.