Sen. William S. Cohen (R-Maine) had a full schedule and hadn't planned to attend the hearing led by Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun (D-Ill.). "I just kind of stumbled into it," he said. What he found that February day was a fascinating but wrenching discussion of the pros and cons of "gangsta rap," the hard-core urban music whose violent lyrics and denigration of women have stirred a national debate.

"I don't consider myself a prude," Cohen said in a recent interview, "but when I hear these messages aimed primarily at black men, about what they should do to black women, that concerns me. If you say something long enough, the boldest possible lie becomes a truth." While most of the debate in Congress over violence has focused on conventional solutions to crime -- longer jail terms, tighter gun control, more prisons and more police officers -- some legislators are exploring the issue from another direction. They are taking on the movie studios, the television networks, the recording industry, the video-game makers and other purveyors of violent images. Increasingly, lawmakers are stretching the boundaries of traditional lawmaking, searching for ways to address what some see as the decaying of our popular culture. There are at least nine bills pending in Congress aimed at television violence. Last week, Rep. Cardiss Collins (D-Ill.) held her second hearing on the impact of some rap music lyrics. And in two weeks, Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) has scheduled a symposium in San Francisco on video-game violence. "Parents feel like they're in a struggle to raise their children, and the struggle is against these cultural forces," said Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.). He suggests it is up to lawmakers to use forums of Congress as bully pulpits to say to producers of pop culture: "There are consequences to what you do." Lieberman and Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) have sponsored legislation that calls for a government panel to develop a video-game rating system if the industry doesn't develop its own system within 12 months of enacting the law. Passing the bill may not be necessary. Since a highly charged Senate hearing last December on video-game violence, game manufacturers and companies that develop and distribute personal computer software have been working to devise common rating symbols. A spokesman for the video-game industry said a system to rate video games may be ready by Christmas. The controversy arose around games such as Mortal Kombat, in which a player can win a "fatality bonus" that allows him to tear off an opponent's head or rip out his heart, and Night Trap, in which a scantily clad woman is assaulted by three thugs. Following protests, one version of Night Trap was removed from the market by its manufacturer for reediting. That Congress is paying attention to such topics, lawmakers say, is a result of heightened concerns among parents. "Increasingly," Lieberman said, "you hear from constituents who say, 'We're worried about values, we're worried about moral decline in our society.' " Lieberman had to look no farther than his own office for a reason to get involved. His administrative assistant, William G. Andresen Jr., engaged his interest in video-game violence by telling Lieberman about his anguish over his 9-year-old son's attraction to Mortal Kombat. Other lawmakers have been similarly affected by personal experience. Moseley-Braun, who enjoys some rap music, was prompted to hold her hearing after her 16-year-old son told her about a hot underground record that kids were dancing to in Chicago. Its title: "Beat that Bitch with a Bat." "That's not artistic expression," said Moseley-Braun. "If we feed them garbage, it's garbage in, garbage out." Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.) was campaigning for the Senate in 1984 in rural Illinois when he turned on a cable television movie in his motel room and "saw somebody being sawed in half." Simon is not sure which movie it was, but recalls thinking: "What happens to a 10-year-old who sees this?" The following year he began a crusade against TV violence, which led to the 1990 Television Violence Act -- a three-year waiver of antitrust laws that permitted the industry to voluntarily regulate itself on issues relating to violence. In February, Simon reached agreement with the broadcast and cable networks to have an independent expert monitor programs for violence and produce annual reports for the public. Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.) wants to go a step further. As a father of two children, ages 7 and 4, Dorgan says: "I just became more aware of what my children were seeing." He joined them in watching Saturday morning cartoons, some of which he did not consider so wholesome. "There needs to be a way to put more pressure on those who are producing these programs," he said. Dorgan has introduced legislation that would require the Federal Communications Commission to sample network and cable programs and issue quarterly "report cards" on how much violence the shows contain. As an example, Dorgan released a survey conducted last year by students at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minn., that found that the four commercial broadcast networks (CBS, NBC, ABC and Fox) aired a combined 935 acts of violence during a week of prime-time programming. The intensified congressional scrutiny of popular culture has caused the entertainment industries to quiver and rebel. "It didn't force our hand, I think that's a little strong, but it definitely drew our attention," said Brigit Blumberg, spokeswoman for the National Cable Television Association, which has been voluntarily exploring anti-violence measures such as viewer-discretion technology that would allow parents to block programming. "It is our feeling that industry measures are preferable to government intervention." Tim Sites, a senior vice president at the Recording Industry Association of America, said: "Congress can sort of wrap themselves in the flag and purport to be protecting the American family and not address some of the real issues." While the recording industry supported the hearings on "gangsta rap," Sites noted, "Too many people are addressing the symptoms and not the disease itself. I think what Congress needs to address is why are kids singing such angry lyrics. By turning a deaf ear you're not going to make violence go away." Cohen agrees in part. Among his recommendations is that President Clinton establish a White House Commission on Racism to explore the rage and frustration that is contributing to the violence in many communities. As he sat through the hearing on "gangsta rap," though, Cohen recalled thinking: "What do I do as a white legislator talking about 'gangsta rap,' who has no notion of what it's like to be in the 'hood?' " But he said he also realized: "Something's got to change." Cohen blames the record companies for "making millions" exploiting young blacks "who are struggling with their identity." "How do you get back family values at a time when you are glorifying the dehumanization of women and heroizing images of those who are propagating violence as a way of life?" he asked. "I don't know how you legislate that."