When Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.) drives from the Capitol to his home in Foggy Bottom, he passes the grates near the State Department where a number of homeless people sleep.

This ride, he said, reminds him of the kind of fundamental urban problems that beset both his home state of New Jersey and the city -- problems he intends to address in his new role as ranking minority member of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on the District.

The freshman Democrat already has changed the pace and tone of the panel's hearings.

Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) practically ran a one-man show for two years as chair of the subcommittee, with rare appearances by the previous ranking minority member, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.).

Specter, backed by a 3-to-2 Republican majority, should have little difficulty in passing a D.C. budget to his liking, but Lautenberg already has established a greater minority presence on the subcommittee.

Specter, a former Philadelphia prosecutor who conducts meetings in a brisk manner, in the past has gotten witnesses in and out of the hearing room in rapid order.

But since joining the subcommittee in January, Lautenberg has been there to ask detailed questions of witnesses dealing with broad public policy issues, such as raising the drinking age, and more nitty-gritty matters, like how money should be spent for word processors at D.C. Superior Court.

Lautenberg, 61, said in an interview that he was disappointed that he hadn't met Mayor Marion Barry until Barry's appearance this month before the subcommittee. He said he hopes to arrange an in-depth meeting with the mayor to discuss the District at length.

Lautenberg, who started his own data-processing firm in New Jersey which employs 18,000 people, also expressed surprise that he has not heard from the city's business leaders or community groups.

"My orientation is toward the entrepreneur side," he said.

Lautenberg also said he is interested in drug abuse programs and the efforts to raise reading scores in the public schools. In a high-technology age, he said, he wants to make sure D.C. schools are giving students appropriate computer education.