A committee of the supposedly harried Virginia Senate today found almost an hour to debate the merits of a resolution that was universally declared dead before its introduction, even by the senator who authored it.

Despite emergency night meetings and an undisguised effort to shame citizens at public hearings into abbreviated speeches in this short, four-week session, the oratorical urge appears all but irresible to the legislators here. Legislative leaders already are saying the session may have to be extended an extra week and today's meeting was one reason why.

"Gentlemen, at long last I offer you an issue worthy of your genius," began Ray Garland, the Republican senator from Roanoke whose powers of oratory are legend. "It is a big issue and it will take big men to put aside personal ambitions and cherished illusions to support it."

Garland's pitch -- to change the state constitution to allow Virginia's governors to succeed themselves -- provoked a 50-minute torrent of political puns, historical allusions and partisan jabs among members of the powerful Privileges and Elections Committee, after which the proposal went exactly where everyone knew it would: nowhere.

"Down here the role of debate, public speaking and oratory . . . doesn't have a great effect on whether a bill is passed or killed," said Garland after his early-morning performance. "The floor debate is really like a show window in which you display your wares and earn your spurs." r

Garland is one of half a dozen of Virginia's 40 state senators who command attention when they get up to speak. A few, such as Sen. Adelard L. Brault (D-Fairfax) and Sen. Wiley F. Mitchell (R-Alexandria), hold an audience with the power of their reasoning. Others, such as Sen. L. Douglas Wilder (D-Richmond) and Sen. Hunter B. Andrews (D-Hampton), rely like Garland on anecdote, humor and high bombast to reach an audience of colleagues lulled into somnolence by legislation dealing with headlight regulations and speed limits on college campuses.

But few of the Senate's most talented speakers will argue that public oratory is any match for private politicking when it comes to moving legislation. That reality was apparent today in the P & E Committee, where Garland thundered vainly before a committee whose minds were already made up.

The resolution championed by Garland would have amended the state constitution to allow governors elected in 1985 and beyond to succeed themselves. Virginia is one of only a handful of states that do not allow their governors to serve two consecutive four-year terms.

The committee killed Garland's proposal -- "PBI-ing" it, as the legislators put it (passed-by indefinitely) -- by a vote of 10 to 5. Only three of the 12 Democrats on the Committee voted to send Garland's proposal to the Senate floor for further consideration, and one of them, Andrews, is known to covet the office himself.

"This is probably going to shock you, but I happen to agree with you," said Andrews, who rarely passes up an opportunity to engage Garland in debate. "If you hadn't been so busy reading Churchill, you would have known that. I suggest you read more about Thomas Jefferson than Winston Churchill."

"Senator, may I remind you that Thomas Jefferson succeeded himself," answered Garland, referring to Jefferson's two terms as governor of Virginia before the current constitution was drafted.

Sen. William Truban (R-Shenandoah) informed his colleagues that Gov. John N. Dalton has publicly supported changing the constitution to mandate one six-year term for his office. But when he asked if the committee would support that change, the response was less than enthusiastic.

"That was in the Confederate constitution," volunteered Sen. Andrews, "but no one ever got to serve a full term."