The Virginia Senate passed a far-reaching bill today that for the first time specifically would make rape and sexual assault of a spouse crimes in the state.

"A rape is a rape whether it occurs inside [the home] or outside those walls," Sen. Wiley F. Mitchell Jr. (R-Alexandria) said in an impassioned plea for the bill. The House already has approved the bill, but must act on minor changes the Senate approved today before it is sent to Gov. Gerald L. Baliles, who is expected to sign it.

"It sends a message to all husbands that they have to respect their wives," said Sen. Thomas J. Michie Jr. (D-Charlottesville).

In another matter, the House Finance Committee approved a controversial gasoline tax increase today and voted to give Baliles the unusual authority to determine how $50 million in highway planning money would be spent.

With four days before adjournment, the Senate Rules Committee addressed the controversial conflict-of-interest issue and voted today to establish an ethics panel to advise members on conflict questions. The committee also approved a procedural change that would make it harder for senators to vote by proxy during committee meetings.

Opponents of the marital rape measure led a spirited but losing fight against it. Sen. Dudley J. (Buzz) Emick (D-Botetourt) charged that the bill was filled with "gobbledygook" provisions and Sen. Daniel W. Bird Jr. (D-Wytheville) said it was "a defense lawyers' dream."

"How many of you think it's proper to rape your wife?" countered Michie. "This is important to the people." Mitchell denounced "all the prancing, all the sarcasm, all the laughter" and said the bill would help "abused, maligned and unprotected spouses."

The bill passed 33 to 6 after the Senate easily rejected by voice vote an amendment by Emick that sponsors said would have gutted the bill.

The bill, which grew out of two State Supreme Court rulings and a legislative study on the issue, would allow prosecutors to charge a spouse with rape if the couple had been living apart or if the victim suffered serious physical injury. Victims would be required to report crimes within 10 days unless they were physically unable to do so because of injury or intimidation.

A spouse convicted under the bill would face a prison term of five years to life, the same as for other rapes.

The bill would impose a sentence of one to 20 years for marital sexual assault if the couple were living together. Other sexual assaults by married persons also would be subject to prison terms up to 20 years. Any defendant in a spousal case could receive court-ordered counseling instead of prison.

House Majority Leader Thomas W. Moss Jr. (D-Norfolk), sponsor of the bill, has said counseling provisions were included in an effort to save marriages.

The gasoline tax measure, which may be debated on the House floor Wednesday, would effectively raise the price of gasoline by about 1 cent a gallon and establish sharply higher vehicle registration and titling fees. It also retains a controversial subsidy for gasohol production in the state.

The bill, which was introduced by Del. Warren G. Stambaugh (D-Arlington), would replace a $700 million tax measure sought by Sen. Edward E. Willey, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. Willey has not said if he would go along with the new measure.

"I think the governor is being intimidated by Ed Willey," said Del. Vincent F. Callahan Jr. (R-Fairfax). He said the highway department doesn't need the additional revenue and that Baliles wants to pass some form of a gasoline tax bill to appease Willey and avoid having Willey's entire bill defeated.

"I don't think that's an accurate characterization at all," said Baliles' press secretary Chris Bridge.

Under the Stambaugh bill, the governor would decide how to spend the $50 million in highway funds to expedite construction -- a power normally held by Highway Commissioner Ray D. Pethtel and the State Highway and Transportation Board.

"This is a time for a whole change in the view of transportation," Bridge said, noting the transportation board would recommend spending to the governor.

The move by the Senate Rules Committee to establish an ethics panel comes just a day after the Senate effectively killed a controversial measure that would have largely exempted the legislature from the state's conflict-of-interest act.