hen colleagues rise to oppose Sen. Edward E. Willey on bills before the Virginia Senate, decorum requires that they apologize first.

The apologies usually start with an oratorical flourish, intended as a show of respect for the 71-year-old patriarch of Senate Democrats. But they often end on a note of fear, a thinly disguised reticence to risk the wrath of Willey, the powerful chairman of the Finance Committee.

"It is never pleasant to oppose the senior senator from Richmond," said Sen. Howard Anderson (D-Halifax) the other day before he voted against Willey's bill to raise gasoline taxes that would result in as much as a 3 cents a gallon price rise for consumers. "When you do, you run a great risk."

On that day, Willey's gasoline tax was getting rough treatment. Senators from Northern Virginia were in open revolt. There was frustrating silence from the new Democratic Gov. Charles S. Robb. To get the 21 votes needed, Willey's friend and partner in power, Majority Leader Hunter B. Andrews (D-Hampton), had to work overtime, hunting down senators all over town. In the end, Willey won, as he had a week earlier on a bill to raise corporate taxes $96 million.

"Opposing Ed Willey," said Minority Leader William A. Truban (R-Shenandoah), "is like hitting your mother."

At his age and with his 30 years seniority, Willey, a gaunt figure partial to pin-stripe suits and fedora hats, has become the symbol of Virginia's political old guard. His steps are slower now and friends say he tires by mid-afternoon, but all agree that time has done little to soften his blunt, outspoken style or to dim the political acumen of the retired pharmacist.

This year Willey's political savvy and his power have particular significance for the state's new governor, whose four-year hitch as lieutenant governor is no match for Willey's 10 years as Finance Committee chairman. Yet Robb so far has resisted Willey's advice, refusing to embrace the chairman's gas tax or to admit the need for increased corporate taxes.

"It's a ballet, full of minuets and pas de deux," said a Robb aide recently in describing the back-and-forth between Robb and Willey. Robb supporters argue that he needs to establish his independence from "the good old boys" who run the Senate. But they admit that he may soon need their help, and chief among them will be Willey.

"Ed and Hunter both have been through the trenches, they know state government up one side and down the other," said Sen. Dudley Emick (D-Botetourt). "They feel they know state government better than the governor. And they do."

In the three years since Willey and Andrews emerged triumphant in a Senate coup, they have become an almost unbeatable duo. "Hunter is the enforcer and Ed is don," said Sen. Richard Saslaw (D-Fairfax) in describing the hold the Senate leadership has on the 40 senators. Of the two, Andrews is the more forceful orator, legendary for his scornful outbursts and his skill at whipping coalitions into shape.

Willey has the budget, which has always set him apart. Last year, for example, Sen. Charles Waddell (D-Loudoun) watched in dismay as $100,000 for a Horse Breeder Incentive Fund was whisked from the budget after he had the temerity to speak against social service cuts made by Willey's committee.

"Nothing was ever said," said Waddell. "I can only assume it was because I was not being a team player on the budget. It was a hard lesson."

Willey doesn't dispute Waddell's interpretation. "You can either be appreciative or you can be unappreciative," he said. "Instead of thanking the committee for being nice, he criticized them. Certainly the committee is going to react to that kind of criticism."

Although Willey and Andrews diverge on some issues--such as ERA or tougher conflict of interest legislation which Andrews supports and Willey opposes--the men are indebted to the Virginia Senate's "old guard," a group of long-serving conservative legislators. One critic described them as men "whose views date back to the turn of the century."

In 1975, that group was ousted in a coup staged by moderate Democrats who met as a caucus in Charlottesville and elected Sen. Adelard Brault (D-Fairfax) as majority leader and stripped Willey of his chairmanship of the Senate Rules Committee.

In 1979, the favor was returned. Brault was deposed and Andrews restored. But for senators like Emick, a critical concession was that Andrews cool his "imperial" style. "It's not like the old days, when they could ram it down your throat," Emick said. "Now they listen."

Although lumped with the old guard and recognized as leaders of that group, neither Willey nor Andrews has always fit the mold. Unlike Andrews, whose ancestory made him a Virginia gentleman by birth, Willey is a self-made man who came to Richmond from the Shenandoah Valley as a student and stayed to open a small successful pharmacy in a middle-class section of the city.

In 1959, Willey broke with the Byrd organization, voting for "freedom of choice" and against segregationists who wanted to close schools rather than integrate.

"He was the outsider then . . . but Ed's a street fighter," said Emick. "He's not the least bit reticent to tell you what he thinks."

Willey prides himself on his direct approach. "I don't talk about members behind their backs," he said. "I say it to their face." His directness and his threats are legendary. When a community college proposed not to accept his recommendation on a site for a new college, Willey warned them to expect trouble in the General Assembly. "I told them I could play that game," he said recently. "My bill went sailing through like a sun in July."

About conflict of interest legislation, he has barely concealed his contempt. "We got some people down here who even if Jesus Christ came back, they wouldn't have him," he said recently before abstaining on an Andrews bill that would create an independent ethics commission.

And then there was the time he rose on the Senate floor to proclaim, "I've never made a deal in the 29 years I've been in the Senate." That statement prompted loud guffaws, though Willey insists he spoke the truth.

"I don't want to trade off on bad bills; I'm not one to engage in those kinds of things," said Willey, "Often times, I'm able to help with small requests. Sometimes we make concessions to people. It's necessary. But I have no particular power. I just make sure everyone is heard fairly."

Willey, who voted for Republican candidates consistently in the last three national elections, prides himself on the Democratic stewardship in the General Assembly--and the power that the body has acquired.

"Conservative Democrats run Virginia," he said. "Republican governors haven't done a thing. The governor can't do anything without the General Assembly. It's the General Assembly who runs the state."