Senate Majority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) yesterday endorsed an initial move to limit filibusters that have increasingly paralyzed the Senate. But he stopped short of recommending more drastic steps that have been proposed to expedite the chamber's operations.

In testimony before the Senate Rules Committee as it began consideration of proposed changes in committee structure and rules for floor debate, Dole asserted that the Senate often seems to be "breaking down."

But he questioned whether rules are the Senate's main problem. "The question may not be the rules, it may be the attitude of the senators," said the new majority leader, who has made it clear that he intends to run the Senate with a firmer hand than his predecessor, former senator Howard H. Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.).

Among other things, Dole suggested yesterday that he may have to put the Senate through several all-night sessions "to make the point."

Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), a veteran filibusterer, appeared also to question the effectiveness of rules changes. Speaking of the relatively noncontroversial filibuster curtailment that Dole endorsed, Helms said there were ways to get around it, adding, "I could think of three myself right now."

While Dole endorsed the need for some procedural changes, he cautioned against taking up highly controversial ones that could tie up the Senate for weeks "when we have other very important business -- like the deficit and the budget."

The proposal that won Dole's blessing would have the effect of cutting off one of the two opportunities for a senator to block legislation by extended debate, or filibusters.

It would bar filibusters on the motion by which the Senate proceeds to consideration of legislation, thus confining filibusters to the legislation itself.

"The minority on any particular matter can still protect its rights by filibustering the bill or any amendment it finds objectionable," said Dole. "Two layers of filibuster and two cloture votes to limit the filibuster should not be required," he added.

Among the proposals that Dole appeared to want to sidetrack, at least for the present, was one to limit extraneous, or "nongermane," amendments. He said the problem could better be handled through mutual agreement of party leaders.

Helms and others have signaled that they might oppose any change in the currently loose germaneness procedures, raising the possibility of protracted debate that could get in the way of other matters that are higher on Dole's priority list. "I don't want to spend two or three weeks on something I'm not sure I believe in anyway," said Dole.

Dole also said the Senate's Committee on Committees has tentatively approved a plan for reduction in the size of committees and in the number of committee assignments available to an individual senator. The plan does not go quite as far as a formula recommended by a select committee appointed last year to propose committee reforms.