In a windowless room tucked away on the seventh floor of the General Assembly Building, five legislators in shirt sleeves gathered around the conference table two nights ago. Their mission was, as one put it, "to make sausage" out of a bill repealing the state sales tax on food.

They haggled over how much the bill would cost, whether the state tax department could enforce its complex provisions and -- most of all -- whether it had any chance of passage in a year when many Virginia lawmakers are decrying the lack of state revenues.

When the five men -- members of a House finance subcommittee on the food tax -- left the room 90 minutes later, the bill was dead, replaced by a less costly alternative that gives low-income families tax credits for the tax they pay on food.

The scene on the seventh floor was repeated -- sometimes openly, sometimes behind closed doors -- in conference rooms all over the capitol last week. As the 1980 General Assembly reached the halfway mark. Virginia's lawmakers shook off their inertia and got down to legislative arm wrestling.

"It may not look like we're doing much," says Del. Warren G. Stambaugh (D-Arlington), one of the lawmakers who ironed out the food tax compromise. "But I've been working harder in committee than I can ever remember."

And as the scene suggests, this year's assembly appears committed to maintaining a rather tight-fisted status quo. The lawmakers are not in the mood for either major tax cuts or increases.

For a while, it looked like this year's session might never quite get rolling. In the first three weeks, lawmakers introduced considerably fewer bills than in previous years and appeared to be holding back their most controversial ones. The daily sessions of the full House and Senate were largely taken up with such matters as resolutions honoring country music star, Roy Clark, stock driver Richard Petty and the Fairfax Symphony Orchestra.

"We haven't seen a single piece of controversial legislation yet" says Del. Vincent F. Callahan Jr. (R-Fairfax). "There hasn't been anything worth debating or voting against."

"A lot of bills were held back," says state Sen. Richard Saslaw (D-Fairfax). "There is a tendency for people to believe that if you have a highly controversial bill, it'll fare better in a crowded environment."

Finally, as the deadline for introducing bills rolled around, legislators anted up with more than 400 bills and 100 resolutions. That brought the session's total to just over 1500 bills -- slightly fewer than the last 60 day session two years ago and a reversal of a longtime upward trend.

"Don't overlook the possibility that this reduction reflects the mood of the people we represent," says Senate Majority Leader Hunter B. Andrews (D-Hampton). "It may be that people want a little less state government in their lives."

Some of the session's most controversial legislation -- the food tax repeal, ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment and reform of the state's rape laws -- finally got aired in committees last week. Oothers, including Gov. John N. Dalton's bill to increase the state's current nine cents a gallon gasoline tax by four cents to pay for highway and Metro construction, are due for hearings this week.

Dalton's proposal -- the first time the conservative Republican governor has endorsed increased state funding of Metro construction -- provided virtually the only drama of the legislature's first weeks.

But Dalton, who alienated the Democratic legislative majority with his aggressive campaigning for GOP candidates last fall, quickly found he had little support in his own party for the tax increase. He then turned to the Democratic leadership for help. They pledged support for some kind of tax increase, but forced Dalton to revise his proposal to a four cents a gallon tax hike.

Even the leadership's support may not be enough to get the bill through the House Finance Committee, whose chairman, Archibald A. Campbell (D-Wythe), is adamantly opposed to any statewide gasoline tax increase. Supporters say they can count on no more than a half-dozen sure votes on Campbell's 20-member committee, even if the increase is cut back to two or three cents per gallon.

An alternative proposal to impose a 4 percent gasoline sales tax in Northern Virginia to pay for Metro is expected to fare better, although its fate is also far from certain.

The first few weeks also saw an increase in partisanship, with Republicans in both houses complaining that they had been shortchanged by the Democratic leadership in the distribution of key committee assignments.

Since then, Republicans have reverted to the low profile they are usually forced to maintain here. "You don't swing your weight around if you've only got 25 percent of both bodies," says Democrat Saslaw.

The assembly's newest drama will be played out Tuesday on the Senate floor when the lawmakers take up ERA ratification. The Senate Privileges and Elections Committee approved an ERA resolution last week for the first time since the measure was proposed seven years ago.

The vote on the floor will be close and some senators are expecting a 20-to-20 tie.That would leave the resolution up to Lt. Gov. Charles S. Robb of McLean, who presides over the Senate and who has endorsed the ERA.

But even if the Senate says yes to ERA, the resolution faces almost certain extinction in a House committee, unless supporters can convince the full House to suspend its rules and take the resolution out of committee for a full floor vote.