A fledging trade association of lobbyists, bent on sprucing up that profession's image, asked its members yesterday to approve a code of ethics that had been a year in the drafting.

Ethics won, 24 to 14, with six absentions.

But the debate was sufficiently stormy, the mandate sufficiently thin, and the cries of "railroad" sufficiently loud that the slightly shell-shocked leadership of the American League of Lobbyists withheld formal adoption of the code at its Mayflower Hotel convention and decided to send the matter back to committee.

"I'm certainly surprised, but I'll call it pleasantly surprised," said Roland Ouellette, president of the three-year-old group, which claims some 300 members out of a federal government lobbying community of more than 10,000. "We were looking for debate and now we have it."

Most of the 10 points in the proposed code were tame recitations of Boy Scout virtues. But one principle, the First, went to the nub of the lobbyists' dilemma and sparked all of the controversy. It read:

"I pledge that I will endeavor at all times to place the public's interest above all others, giving loyalty to the highest ethical principles and to the nation, above loyalty to employer, client or personal interest."

That standard of conduct drew a shower of "who's-kidding-whom" from a group that prides itself on the hired-gun aspects of its trade.

"If any employe of mine signed this code I'd fire him on the spot," said Bruce Ladd, director of congressional relations for Motorola Inc. "The minute you don't respond first to the person who's paying the freight, I don't need you anymore."

Ladd stated the case for the primacy of client and employer most starkly, but he was by no means alone. Lawyers in the group -- and they were plentiful -- said they would have trouble embracing a code that put them in conflict with the canons of the bar that decree duty to client first.

And other lobbyists noted that the whole idea of "public interest" is shadowy -- especially in the hands of other, competing lobbyists.

The drafters of the code tried to calm the concerns, but managed little more than an oratorical standoff. "The notion of the public interest is not subject to a dictionary definition but to an educated conscience," said Gary Edwards, executive director of the Ethics Resource Center, which helped the league to write its document.

Edwards, who had opened his remarks by reassuring the lobbyists that "you need not be ashamed of your profession," insisted in the face of these objections that some sort of public interest standard was essential. "As lobbyists, whatever else you are, you are in the public service," he said.

When these exhortations appeared unconvincing, Ouellette took steps to rescue the endangered motion. He assured the membership that the draft language was not etched in stone. "The language, even the principles, can be changed later," he said. "This is just a first step."

On that basis the group approved the document. The proposed code will now go back to a committee for an overhaul, then be redistributed to all 300 members for another round of comments.

"I suspect there'll be some changes," said Ouellette, a lobbyist for General Motors. "The basic thing we're trying to say is that there should be no conlfict between private interest and public interest.

"I realize, of course, coming from me that sounds a little like 'What's good for General Motors is good for the country,' " he added, ruefully.