A bill to put controls on cable television prices, which had sailed through the House of Representatives unanimously last month, was derailed in the Senate yesterday by a key ally of the cable TV industry.

Opposition to the legislation was spearheaded by Sen. Timothy E. Wirth (D-Colo.), who expressed concern about the impact of the bill on the cable industry.

A handful of Senate opponents were able to block the measure by objecting to a leadership request that a time limit be set on any debate.

Some of the nation's biggest cable companies, including Tele-Communications Inc., the largest operator of cable systems, are based in Wirth's home state of Colorado.

As a House member in the early 1980s, Wirth helped write the landmark Cable Television Act of 1984 that de-regulated the cable industry.

The industry has been a major source of campaign funds for Wirth, raising more than $80,000 in April at a Washington dinner.

A aide to Wirth said there was no connection between the recent fund-raiser and the senator's actions yesterday.

Senate sources held out hope that a compromise could be reached during the weekend that would satisfy Wirth's insistence that the law be made less onerous to cable operators.

But with time running out in this session of Congress -- and with a presidential veto looming over the measure -- the odds of enacting the bill grew longer with the Senate's inaction yesterday. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii), among the leaders on the cable issue, yesterday described the bill as "dead and buried."

The Senate bill seeks to rein in rising cable prices and restore some of the government oversight of the industry that was stripped away by the passage of the Cable Television Act of 1984.

Responding to an outpouring of complaints from consumers, proponents of the House and Senate measures have argued that the industry needs to be re-regulated because most cable operators have monopoly franchises and in many cases have provided poor service at increasing expense to subscribers. About 60 percent of American households receive cable televison.

The House and Senate bills both would give the Federal Communications Commission power to review charges for basic cable service, but not "premium" channels such as Home Box Offie. The Senate bill also aims to spur competition by making it harder for cable operators to reach exclusive deals with program producers.

This facet of the Senate bill, among the most bitterly opposed by the cable industry, would make it so that cable operators could not lock up programming such as the music video channel MTV and exclude direct-broadcast satellite services or "wireless" cable operators from carrying the programming. Cable's competitors said they need the programming to compete on equal footing.

Wirth had little objection to the price and service guidelines contained in the bill, but sought changes in the language of the exclusivity portion.

Sens. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), Bob Packwood (R-Ore.) and Malcolm Wallop (R-Wyo.) also raised objections to aspects of the bill yesterday. But compromises had been worked out earlier on almost all the 20 proposed amendments. Most sources said the bill would have passed had it come up for a vote.

Wirth was unavailable for comment yesterday. But an aide questioned why the Senate leadership worked to satisfy the objections of every other senator but Wirth.

Sen. Albert Gore (D-Tenn.) was indirectly critical of Wirth.

"Only this morning do we receive objection from some of our colleagues," Gore said. "Those who prevent consideration of a bill are doing nothing more than assuring that the anticompetitive behavior of cable companies will continue. Ironically this bill could be worked out. The cable industry is taking an all-or-nothing approach because they want to kill it. They waited until the last minute" to attempt to block the bill.

The Wirth aide, who requested anonymity, responded that Wirth made his objections clear early on.

"Today's debate makes it clear there are a number of senators with serious concerns about provisions of the legislation, particularly those relating to program exclusivity," said a representative of the National Cable Television Association. "The NCTA remains prepared to participate in the legislative process to work out a reasonable cable bill."

Legislation aimed at again regulating the cable industry has been in the works for almost two years and has gone through 10 Senate hearings, four House hearings, two government price studies and countless hours of behind-the-scenes negotiating.

Several groups that had been pushing for the cable bill since it was first proposed in early 1989 expressed disappointment yesterday about its apparent demise.

"I think it's a tragedy that a bill that would have driven down prices for consumers was held hostage to this kind of political jockeying," said Gene Kimmelman, legislative director of the Consumer Federation of America. "It could have {been passed} today."

If a compromise can't be reached in the waning moments of this session of Congress, Kimmelman and others predicted that the cable issue would come up again in the next session and that Congress would consider the telephone industry's arguments that that industry be allowed to offer cable TV service.

The phone industry is barred under the cable act from offering video service over their lines.

Staff writer Charles R. Babcock contributed to this report.