As the hands of the clock in the Virginia Senate chamber edged past midnight last Wednesday, an aide was dispatched to the gallery to perform what some would regard as a symbolic act.

He leaned over the edge of the balcony and turned the clock back. Minutes later, the Senate voted by a surprising 27-to-11 margin to approve an amendment to the Virginia Constitution that would impose a sweeping limitation on the state's taxing powers.

The reversal of the clock was intended to preserve the appearance of meeting a midnight deadline the 40-member Senate had set for action on Senate-originated legislation. But even to some of the most conservative assembly leaders, the vote on the amendment was a step backward for the state government.

"Government has to move with the times," House of Delegates Speaker John Warren Cooke (D-Mathews) said in an interview hours after the Senate vote. "This amendment would put a straitjacket on government in Virginia. I see no need for it and I see no demand for it."

Only seven hours before the Senate vote, the House killed a similar tax limitation amendment by sending it back to its Finance Committee. Now Cooke and other House leaders who oppose it are looking for a way to keep the Senate resolution from reaching the House floor.

The Senate action has riveted attention on proposal, which, if finally approved, could turn a somewhat lackluster assembly session into a historic one. It reflects what many say is the election year mood of legislators who are mindful of the popular appeal of California's Proposition 13 and other tax-cutting measures.

To Sen. Joseph V. Gartlan (D-Fair-fax), one of only two Northern Virginia senators who voted against the tax amendment, the vote represented an election-year expression of the assembly's inherent conservatism.

"I don't perceive any differences between the mood of this assembly and others in the past," he said. "The same folks are talking the same way about limiting the growth of government. But the Proposition 13 syndrome has given those people a concrete way to express themselves. It has given a shape to the things they have always felt."

"Last summer's California referendum approving Proposition 13, a law that drastically rolled back local property taxes, has given impetus to the tax limitation movement in Virginia. However, the Virginia proposal is far more comprehensive and has attracted a surprising mix of moderate and conservative supporters.

The Virginia proposal would limit expenditures from all state tax sources in any one year to 7.49 percent of the average total personal income in the state for the three preceding years.

The formula is based on actual state spending during the fiscal year that ended last June 30, with an extra quarter-of-one percent added to it.

Although all of the rapidly growing state budgets of recent years would have fallen below the proposed ceiling, the proponents of the amendment freely acknowledge that it has the potential of forcing tough budget decisions in the future. A lag in Virginia's recently healthy income growth or a sudden surge in built-in budget costs such as employe pensions could easily force cutbacks in the growth of spending for schools, roads or other basic services, they say.

Given the potential for budget austerity that the amendment holds, the list of its supporters in the Senate, including four moderate Northern Virginians, was surprising.

Sen. Wiley F. Mitchell (R-Alexandria), an ardent advocate of greater taxing authority for cities and counties, was one of them. He told a reporter hours after his vote that he was "ashamed" to say that he might have been influenced by the desire to be on the popular side in an assembly election year.

However, he explained his vote the next day as support for a measure he believes could force the assembly to let local governments use the income and sales tax to meet their needs in the future.

Senate Majority Leader Adelard L. Brault (D-Fairfax), another moderate who was skeptical of the tax curb before this session, finally joined the Senate majority of 22 that sponsored it. He acknowledges that his vote in favor of the amendment on Thursday morning was partly influenced by the results of a survey of constituents.

Pulling a copy of results from a questionnaire that was mailed to 12,000 households in his district, he pointed to a line showing that 1,059 responses favored the amendment, while 631 opposed it. "That was a factor in my thinking," he said.

For a proposal with such sweeping implications for the government, the tax amendment has made astonishing progress in the hands of two junior legislators working against influential opponents.

Sen. Elliot S. Schewel (D-Lynchburg) and Del. S. Vance Wilkins Jr. (R-Amherst), both freshman members of the assembly, have been the chief patrons and tireless advocates of the proposal.

A group of Lynchburg business leaders, headed by General Electric executive William Talbott drafted the amendment after months of research. It slowly picked up influential business support throughout the state, including the endorsement of the state Chamber of Commerce.

Despite this backing, business-minded Gov. John N. Dalton spoke against the proposal in his annual address to the assembly. The powerful House leadership, including Cooke, Majority Leader A.L. Philpott (D-Henry) and Finance Committee Chairman Archibald A. Campbell (D-Wytheville), strongly opposed it and were amazed by the Senate action.

"When I heard the Senate vote on the radio, I couldn't believe it," Cooke said.

Both the House and Senate passed resolutions ordering between session studies of tax limitation proposals. Proponents of the proposed amendment insisted that it should be approved this year anyway. If a study commission approves its provision, they said, then the assembly will have a head start on the two-year process required to amend the Constitution.

If the House rejects the amendment again this year, or if a study commission persuades the assembly to change the wording of an approved amendment during the next session, then the amendment process will have to be started again. This would postpone the earliest effect on the budget until 1894.