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ThE Senate Commerce Committee passed a bill to re-regulate cable television rates in an important step toward giving consumers federal protection from skyrocketing cable TV fees.

The legislation, sent to the Senate floor Thursday on a vote of 18-1, would return to the Federal Communications Commission the authority to regulate rates for cable television services."We're going to put the FCC back watching these things. I think cable is going to be disciplining itself," said Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., the committee's chairman.

The cable television industry was deregulated in 1984. Since then consumers have complained about higher cable prices and declining service.

Sen. Al Gore, D-Tenn., said the cable industry has been in a state of chaos since deregulation and has turned into "a monopoly that's out of control."

The proposed legislation "assures the consumers that from now on cable companies are not going to have a totally free rein," agreed Sen. John Danforth, R-Mo.

Danforth said cable rates have increased 40 percent for about one-quarter of cable subscribers since deregulation and have gone up by 29 percent since January 1987.

In the years since cable was introduced in 1948 to improve television reception in remote areas, the cable industry has grown into a more than $13 billion business.

More than half the nation's homes are hooked up to cable.

James Mooney, president of the National Cable Television Association, said the proposed legislation is "much more modest and scaled back" than the cable industry had expected.

Still, the industry objects to many of the bill's provisions, and a battle is expected over restrictions on the exclusive distribution of programming.

Elsewhere on Capitol Hill:

-A UNANIMOUS Senate Foreign Relations Committee wants to slash by 80 percent President Bush's request for money to tear down and rebuild a new U.S. Embassy building in Moscow riddled with electronic bugs. A 15-0 vote by the panel on Thursday demonstrated anew that there is no consensus among policy makers about what to do with the eight-story white elephant.

-WHITE HOUSE budget director Richard Darman said there is an "implicit consensus" among White House and congressional budget negotiators to cut the deficit by $45 billion to $60 billion next year.

Darman made his comments Thursday after negotiators ended a sometimes frustrating daylong discussion about possible cuts in entitlement programs such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and federal payments to veterans, farmers and civil servants.