The search for a transportation secretary to replace Elizabeth Hanford Dole, who resigned to join her husband's presidential campaign, has stalled because of congressional opposition to the leading candidate.

Several senators who specialize in aviation issues have quietly expressed reservations about Deputy Transportation Secretary James H. Burnley IV, who emerged this week as the front-runner among a large field of potential candidates.

Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum (Kan.), ranking Republican on the Commerce, Science, and Transportation aviation subcommittee, was quoted in Thursday's Journal of Commerce as saying she had relayed "deep concerns" about Burnley to Senate Minority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.).

"I don't see the point of going through a contentious nomination," she told the Journal.

Subcommittee Chairman Wendell H. Ford (D-Ky.) also is said to oppose Burnley.

Burnley, 39, is widely regarded on Capitol Hill as confrontational, a reputation cemented after he appeared on CBS News' "Face the Nation" in late May with Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J), chairman of the Appropriations transportation subcommittee.

Burnley accused his critics, including Lautenberg, of speaking "gibberish and nonsense" and scaring air travelers with "loose, quick, glib" answers to questions about air safety.

Senate Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) said he was so offended by the broadcast that he later issued a statement chastising Burnley for making "intemperate and misleading comments" and "behavior unbecoming a deputy secretary."

Lautenberg met for an hour Wednesday afternoon with Burnley, at the request of White House chief of staff Howard H. Baker Jr., and the two discussed a wide variety of department policies that Burnley helped to create. They ranged from sale of Amtrak to funding requests for air traffic controllers.

"The complaints lie largely in his ability to deal with Congress, to deal with the committees of jurisdiction and that he had universally gotten several people very angry at his hostility. I mentioned that to him," Lautenberg said after the meeting.

"He was very contrite and said that he recognized that had been a weakness but was prepared to come out and do what he had to do. He's very bright. He seems to understand the issues very well. I still have reservations, but I'm thinking about it," Lautenberg said.

Burnley has said in several recent interviews that he plans to leave the department and does not expect to receive the nomination. He was unavailable for comment yesterday.

A White House official said yesterday that Burnley remains "the leading candidate", although transportation industry lobbyists have indicated that they would rather see someone else appointed.

Presidential spokesman Marlin Fitzwater described Burnley as "a candidate . . . . He has been part of the administration for a long time." But the White House also has several other contenders for the job.

Burnley was reported to be the personal choice of Dole, who left her post yesterday. Burnley has run the department's day-to-day operation since taking the No. 2 job in 1983.