A contentious debate was under way on the Senate floor one day this week when a light went on underneath the desk of Senate President James Clark Jr., indicating he had on emergency phone call.

On the other end of the line was Gov. Harry Hughes, and from his tone it was clear that the governor was at least as angry as any of the senators in front of Clark.

Impatiently, Hughes asked if he could meet with Clark immediately to discuss why the Senate president -- supposedly one of the governor's chief legislative allies -- had introduced legislation telling the governor how his appointments office should do business.

When the Senate president trudged up to the governor's second-floor office shortly thereafter, he was surprised to discover that a technical bill, drafted at the suggestion of Clark's secretary, had been interpreted as a direct insult by Appointments Secretary Louise Keelty, the most frequently criticized member of Hughes' staff.

As it was drafted, the measure required the appointments office to notify the local delegations in the Senate and the House immediately when anyone from their area was appointed to a government board or commission. That notification, according to the ball, should come before the appointee was told of his or her new job.

Keelty, much criticized by legislators for supposed abrasiveness and insensitivity to their concerns, was furious when she found out about the bill. iShe told Hughes, who was angry enough to take the unusual step of telephoning Clark at the Senate rostrum to ask for an explanation.

In fact, the bill was designed to improve communications between the appointments office and the legislature but got hopelessly distorted by a series of imperfect communications.

"I take the blame for not reading the bill carefully before I went in . . . It was my staff's idea. I took their explanation for it, which didn't explain the whole thing."

The problem began when Clark's administrtive secretary, Sally Laing, grew exasperated at her difficulties keeping track of the membership of the state's numerous boards and commissions. On Monday afternoon, hours before the deadline for filing bills this year, she suggested to Clark that he sponsor a bill forcing the appointments office to let the president of the Senate and House speaker know promptly when an appointment was made.

The bill's drafters, however, went farther than that, and in the last-minute tumble, with 260 bills being introduced in a space of a single evening, nobody from Clark's office read the measure in final form.

Although Clark agreed to have the bill withdrawn, the mix-up had become a source of glee today among legislators who have long harbored grudges against Keelby. And, in a world where rumor runs for faster than fact, the "confrontation" between two top state officials was the subject of much discussion.

"I suppose a lot of people would have liked to have voted for the bill," a mildy amused Clark said today." A lot of people wouldn't mind seeing the appearance of a dispute between the governor and me.

"A lot of things around here get blown out of proportion."