RICHMOND, FEB. 2 -- A proposal to eliminate the sales tax on nonprescription drugs, the linchpin in Virginia Lt. Gov. L. Douglas Wilder's legislative program, was all but killed today.

Its near-death results from a rare agreement between Del. C. Richard Cranwell (D-Vinton) and Sen. Hunter B. Andrews (D-Hampton), the finance committee chairmen of the respective chambers, to defer action on all tax-cutting proposals until next year.

Cranwell, flexing political muscle as the new chairman of the House committee, said he told Wilder before the start of the session that he did not favor his bill, which would exempt over-the-counter remedies -- "cough drops to condoms," according to critics -- from the state's 4 1/2 percent sales tax.

The legislation is one of only two bills proposed by Wilder; the other is an anticrime bill. The respective legislative programs of Wilder and Attorney General Mary Sue Terry are seen as preludes to announcements that they will seek the Democratic nomination for governor next year.

With such high stakes, Wilder was unwilling to concede that his proposal was dead. But Sen. Dudley J. (Buzz) Emick Jr. (D-Botetourt), who sponsored Wilder's measure because neither the lieutenant governor nor attorney general can formally introduce legislation, conceded that, if not dead, the measure is "breathing much slower."

Wilder insisted that "there is a constituency on the {Senate} floor, and in the House" in favor of his proposal, "and the polls show that the people expect relief" from higher taxes.

Andrews said it would be "ridiculous to pass a bill" that the House has said it would kill. Andrews added that there are "a lot of technical and political problems with the bill."

Fairfax County's two representatives on the Senate Finance Committee agreed with Andrews. "I was going to vote against" Wilder's bill, said Sen. Joseph V. Gartlan Jr. (D-Mount Vernon), who predicted that "some of the political heat for repeal will disappear" when taxpayers "find out the average saving will be only $1 a month." Sen. Clive L. DuVal 2d (D-McLean) said it is "reasonable" to study all such proposals because the sales tax "is getting riddled with exceptions."

Cranwell said that although his committee had "not taken an official vote, there is consensus" that no additional exeptions to the sales tax be granted until a study has been done by the tax commissioner.

Once that is complete, in a year, Cranwell said, "we might even be able to repeal the sales tax on food," one of the other regularly recurring ideas doomed by the Cranwell-Andrews pact.

Gov. Gerald L. Baliles opposed Wilder's bill, and other tax-cutting proposals, on the ground that he had presented a balanced $22.5 billion biennial budget that is packed with financing for essential programs.

But Wilder and other legislators who want to cut taxes, which includes the Republican minority, have suggested that the governor's spending package includes a number of patronage projects.

One of those is a $6 million appropriation for Project Explore, a park and recreation project near Cranwell's district in Roanoke, which critics have derided as "Dickie World."

With this week's agreement, Cranwell avoids being put in the position of rejecting a tax cut while defending money for "Dickie World," and sees the defeat of tax-cutting bills sponsored by Emick and Sen. J. Granger Macfarlane (D-Roanoke), two of the most outspoken critics of "Dickie World."