The D.C. Council voted yesterday to severely limit the mayor's discretion in awarding contracts of more than $1 million, a move members said was necessary to control the city's growing financial crisis and to prevent Mayor Marion Barry from overspending during his last months in office.

The council approved the unprecedented measure as emergency legislation, meaning that it lasts only 90 days. But despite caustic debate, there were strong signs that a majority intends to make the shift in power permanent. That would give the council far more power over city contracting than it had during the administration of Barry, who maintained tight control over such spending.

"I'm voting to shut down the mayor's ability to give out contracts," said council member John A. Wilson (D-Ward 2). "The only way to get control of spending in this city is for us to take responsibility for it."

Several members suggested, without offering specific evidence, that Barry has begun recklessly signing contracts and leases as his mayoral term ends.

"What we are seeing is an attempt to get a lot of things signed, sealed and delivered by Jan. 2," said council member Betty Ann Kane (D-At Large), who sponsored the emergency legislation. "A stop has to be put to it."

That feeling was echoed by Democratic mayoral nominee Sharon Pratt Dixon, who said after the vote that she supports the action but had urged the council not to make it permanent. "Given the kind of reforms we need, that would be a great mistake," she said. "I need to have as much latitude as possible. I don't need to have my hands tied."

A spokesman for Dixon's opponent, Republican Maurice T. Turner Jr., said last night that Turner is in favor of the legislation and would not be opposed to making it permanent. The spokesman said Turner believes it would create a better balance of power between the executive and legislative branches of the city government.

Earlier, at a luncheon with Washington Post editors and reporters, Dixon said she believes Barry has been extending the length of city contracts and moving political appointees into civil service jobs to make it more difficult for them to be fired.

Dixon, who has vowed to eliminate about 2,000 city jobs if she is elected, said that she could not cite specific moves by Barry, but that she has heard from "sources in the government" that it is happening.

"I don't know if he's jamming me," Dixon said. "They're just using all of the power to their advantage."

Barry, who has 10 days to decide whether to veto the council's decision, denied after the vote that any of his recent spending has been excessive.

Lurma Rackley, Barry's press secretary, said there was "nothing out of the ordinary" in contracts coming up for renewal or in personnel actions being made by the administration. "This is all in the normal workings of the government, a part of the transition," said Rackley, who added that she didn't know whether Barry would veto the council measure. A vote to override the veto would require support by two-thirds of the council.

In essence, the council's decision means that Barry, and perhaps the next mayor, would need council approval before completing any land deal or any purchase of goods or services worth at least $1 million.

The vote gives the council final authority, at least until January, over about $250 million the city has budgeted for contracting, and over about $40 million it has allocated for buying or leasing property.

City officials said late yesterday they were not able to provide details on any recent land deals that Barry has initiated.

Throughout yesterday's meeting, the council seemed intent on telling Barry's administration to be frugal in its waning months. Only council members H.R. Crawford (D-Ward 7) and John Ray (D-At Large) expressed reservations about the council's action. At one point, Crawford and Council Chairman David A. Clarke (D) exchanged angry words about the merits of the move. Crawford repeatedly asked Clarke to tell him why the council needed to take the emergency step, and questioned whether it has the time to oversee contracts.

"The public is probably going to ask why we didn't do this before," Crawford said. "Why are we doing it now? Why now?"

"This is a peculiar time in which the executive does not have to respond to the people," Clarke replied. "If you think you can trust {Barry}, vote no."

The measure ultimately was approved without a dissenting vote.

The council is scheduled to debate next week whether the action should become permanent, which many members seemed to support.

Wilson, who is virtually assured of winning the council chairman's position in the Nov. 6 general election, was elated by the council's decision yesterday.

"Christmas has arrived," he said. "This is an opportunity to take some control over our government."

In another vote yesterday, the council gave final approval to a new workers compensation law.

The measure, which was opposed by business leaders, gives workers injured on the job greater freedom in choosing physicians, guarantees continued health insurance for at least a year, increases some benefits and sets a standard formula for determining the benefits paid to an employee who can't work.

Staff writers Michael Abramowitz, Mary Ann French and R.H. Melton contributed to this report.