A Virginia Senate committee voted today to exempt members of the General Assembly from criminal prosecution on conflict-of-interest charges stemming from legislative activities, dramatically diluting the state's embattled ethics law.

The proposed changes, hammered out in a secret meeting Tuesday, would leave discipline of legislators for ethics violations solely to the discretion of the General Assembly.

"It will do the most to undermine public confidence and will make it extremely difficult and even impossible for the General Assembly to judge a member," said Sen. Elliot S. Schewel (D-Lynchburg). Schewel said lawmakers would be reluctant to reprimand colleagues because of "cronyism and buddyism and plain old friendship."

The ethics measure, passed earlier by the House, was approved unanimously today by the Senate General Laws Committee and contains the most sweeping of a series of controversial changes lawmakers have proposed this session for weakening the state's conflict-of-interest laws.

Under the provisions accepted by the panel, lawmakers would be immune from criminal prosecution for any ethics violations that occur during any official legislative activities, including voting and committee debates.

"There's virtually nothing that is not involved in the term 'legislative activities,' " said Schewel, a member of the General Laws committee. He said he believed the bill would make it almost impossible to prosecute legislators on conflicts charges for votes that benefit their personal financial interests.

Eight lawmakers, including House Speaker A.L. Philpott (D-Henry), one of the authors of the bill, met privately in Philpott's office Tuesday morning to draft the changes. Some legislators said the secret session was a reaction to testimony last week by a University of Virginia law professor who questioned the constitutionality of the existing ethics law.

"The General Assembly is a separate animal and has to be treated separately and apart," said Philpott, who told the Senate committee that a legislator's actions and votes are protected under the long-held "free debate and speech" clause of the state Constitution.

A House committee earlier rejected similar attempts to treat state legislators differently from local officials by exempting them from criminal prosecution. The Senate version would give legislators that immunity, but bases the change on constitutional grounds.

Law professor A.E. Dick Howard "said it was a gray area and it was inconclusive," said Schewel. "The committee approached that particular point and revised the wording as though it were proven to be unconstitutional."

Under the proposed changes, lawmakers would be subject to disciplinary action for ethical violations only from ethics panels in each of the legislative chambers. In a case where members of one of the ethics panels determined that a legislator had broken the conflicts law, the findings would be forwarded to the full House or Senate, which would determine punishment for the member ranging from no action to a reprimand to removal from office.

The ethics panels would be barred from sending the case to the state attorney general for prosecution, as was done in a case involving Sen. Peter K. Babalas (D-Norfolk), who is now facing criminal charges.

Babalas is accused of voting to kill legislation that would have tightened restrictions on second-mortgage companies, including one that paid him $61,000 in legal fees.

The Senate panel also retained several other major changes approved by the House, including narrowing the number of situations that would be considered a conflict of interest for legislators.

The bill goes next to the Senate floor and then must return to the House for approval.