After 23 years in the Virginia General Assembly, it's hard to imagine state Del. Dorothy S. McDiarmid, the Fairfax County Democrat, as the new kid on the block.

But McDiarmid, the new chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, is just that as she prepares to lead House negotiators in a crucial conference committee over the state budget. The reason: her antagonist will be Sen. Edward E. Willey of Richmond, who holds near-dictatorial power over state spending as the Senate's longtime Finance Committee chairman.

Concern about the House negotiation team has been eased somewhat by McDiarmid's handling of her committee and initial public relations skirmishes with the Senate. McDiarmid jumped out front on the budget issue Monday, chastising the Senate for holding its budget sessions in private, proposing tax increases and disdaining House proposals for increased social welfare spending.

"Lest anyone get strange ideas of the Senate overriding things, oh no," said Hugh (Mac) McDiarmid, the committee chairman's husband and longtime assistant. "Just look at Dorothy's statement."

Complicating matters for the House this year are the relative strengths of the other House and Senate members of the conference committee that has begun two weeks of work in an effort to settle differences in the $18.5 billion biennial budget.

Like McDiarmid, Dels. Robert Ball (D-Henrico County) and V. Earl Dickinson (D-Louisa County) have taken part in budget negotiations, but never led them.

Ball is thought by some legislators to be too close to and too easily influenced by Willey since both are from the Richmond area. Dickinson, some legislators say, is a loyal team player but has never really focused on the skilled intricacies of the budget process.

Willey has the equivalent of a returning varsity team.

Hunter B. Andrews (D-Hampton), the Senate majority leader, is considered one of the most well-versed legislators in how the state works. His ability to sway Willey, using flattery as much as facts, is legend in the General Assembly. He's also known for his sharp-tongued intimidation and sarcasm aimed at others.

Sen. Stanley Walker (D-Norfolk) is a quiet, no-nonsense businessman who has seen it all before.

In raw numbers, the Senate has 73 years of seniority while the House has 53 years.

According to lawmakers and legislative insiders, McDiarmid and House Speaker A.L. Philpott (D-Henry), who officially appoints the House conferees, have reached agreement on how to run the conference and bolster the house team.

Both Ball and Dickinson have been told that McDiarmid will make all the decisions on which compromises the House will accept, a move that sharply reduces the chance that Ball or Dickinson might undercut her.

In addition, McDiarmid is expected to get background guidance from Del. Owen B. Pickett (D-Virginia Beach), a senior member of the committee who also is a lawyer and a certified public accountant.

Philpott and McDiarmid considered putting Pickett on the committee instead of Dickinson, but Philpott decided to keep to the tradition of appointing the three most senior members of appropriations.

Both the House and Senate traditionally load up the budget with items each side will be willing to trade by the March 8 adjournment.

"It's a poker game," said Mac McDiarmid. "You can't have it look like everything went the House's way or the Senate's way."