For newer legislators here, it is almost a ritual, that the first time a powerful colleague comes to ask for "help" on a bill he offers in return his "help" on some measure that is close to the newcomer's heart. It's called vote-trading, and it's a basic mechanism of politics here.

But often in the past few years, women legislators and the issues they care about have been left out of this wheeling and dealing. Events of the past couple of days, however, indicate things may be changing.

The seasoned, cigar-smoking political pros seem a little more willing to pay attention to women's issues - for a price - and the women legislators, individually and as members of the Women's Caucus, are increasingly willing to get involved in the nitty-gritty business of vote-trading.

Case in point: Paul Weisengoff, head of the powerful Baltimore City delegation, spoke with Del. Lorraine Sheehan, a Prince George's Democrat and member of the Women's Caucus, about an upcoming Appropriations Committee vote on the site of a new state prison.

The principals' accounts of the conversation differ. But Sheehan came away with one clear impression: if two of the Women's Caucus members of the Appropriations Committee - Montgomery County Democrats Nancy Kropp and Marilyn Goldwater - voted to keep a new state prison out of Weisengoff's legislative district, Weisengoff might round up a few votes on behalf of something the women cared about.

As it happened, there was a measure that the women did care about, a bill restructuring procedures for distributing a married couple's property when they divorce. Unfortunately, "We didn't have enough time to pull everything together" for the vote that afternoon, Sheehan later explained.

Goldwater had already made up her mind to oppose Weisengoff's move, and Kopp was distrustful of whether the Baltimore Democrat would help on a women's issue. "And anyway, the vote was 16 to 8 (against the Weisengoff move), so it wouldn't have made a difference," Sheehan said.

What was important, though, was not so much the fact that a deal couldn't be struck this time. What was important was that the women legislators involved were amenable to striking a deal, if circumstances had been somewhat different.

"I don't think we were exactly vote-trading on this issue," Sheehan said. "But I would encourage women legislators to do that if that's what it takes to get some of our things through . . . That's the way things are done here."

Weisengoff denies making a specific - or even implicit - offer to trade votes in return for support of his move to block the prison at Fort Armistead Park in his district. "I was interested in finding out whether (the two women) were committed or not," he said yesterday.

However, any interest shown by Weisengoff, who has a reputation as one of the most adept vote-traders in Annapolis could lead another legislator to believe he was willing to make a deal.

That Thursday morning conversation has also led members of the Women's Caucus to discuss openly the plausibility of vote-trading in the most effective way, as a bloc.

A total of 22 members of the 141-member House of Delegates belong to the Women's Caucus. Numerically, they could be at least two-thirds as powerful as the 33-member Baltimore City delegation headed by Weisengoff.

This open discussion about vote-trading as a bloc is a new thing, according to Women's Caucus president Pauline Menes, a Prince George's Democrat. "Most of the women I know in politics do come in with a commitment to a particular way of making decisions: through rational argument.

"Therefore, they are less prone to trade votes," she added. "But we've got to be realistic . . . Some positions are just not tied to any philosophical point of view. There are some issues where both sides have something to recommend them.

"In those cases, (vote-trading) is not a perversion of the process, if by doing that you gain something which is a benefit to the citizens of the state. This action yesterday shows that we are a group that others in the legislature are going to try and wheel and deal with . . .

"And we are coming closer to the time when we will do things differently than we have in the past, in order to prevail," Menes added. Sheehan put it a little differently, saying, "I want to be on the winning side a little more often."

It is worth noting that both Sheehan and Menes are part of the Prince George's delegation, which has been known to do some hard bargaining in recent years.

However, collegues Kopp and Goldwater - products of Montgomery County, whose delegation is not known as a deal-making group - also find the idea of occasional vote-trading appealing.

"If the (possibility of a deal on the prison question) had come up earlier, I certainly would have been willing to negotiate." Goldwater said. "I think there is a time for wheeling and dealing."

"Nothing is decided about this." Sheehan cautioned. "It's just something being talked around" by members of the Women's Caucus. "But I feel that the women's groups themselves can be the philosphical ones. It's up to us to be practical, and to get things accomplished."