A dominant theme in Gov. Mark R. Warner's inaugural remarks in 2002 was a plea to the Republican-controlled General Assembly to put aside partisan differences.

"Mr. Speaker," he said to the then-leader of the House of Delegates, S. Vance Wilkins Jr., "I extend to you the hand of friendship and cooperation."

Nearly three years later, Wilkins is gone and the relationship between Warner and the leaders in the Republican-controlled House has soured.

In the summer, some lawmakers and administration officials had privately expressed hope that the bitterness of this year's fight over taxes could be set aside as Warner enters his fourth and final year. This week, however, there was fresh evidence that friendship and cooperation will be noticeably absent when the House leadership returns to Richmond in January.

On Monday, senior House Republicans who were bested by Warner in the tax debate orchestrated an early political attack. They criticized him for boosting his office budget by transferring more than $1 million from other executive agencies.

Never mind that the money amounted to less than one-ten-thousandth of the state's two-year, $60 billion budget. Or that the practice started under Republican Gov. George Allen and continued under Republican Gov. James S. Gilmore III.

During an Appropriations Committee meeting, the leaders of the House Republicans compared the practice to the accounting chicanery that brought down Enron.

"Dear God!" Del. Leo C. Wardrup Jr. (R-Virginia Beach) exclaimed at one point.

Warner aides said the attack was a political ploy, even as they acknowledged that the popular governor left his adversaries an opening by failing to fix what they called a regrettable budgeting gimmick.

Mindful that Warner's popularity is based largely on his reputation for financial integrity, they offered examples of the budgeting sins of past Republican governors. Gilmore's staff, for example, included nine people whose salaries were paid by the Department of Corrections, the Department of Housing and Community Development and other agencies.

The dispute over Warner's budget is likely to drag into the winter. If Warner continues the budget gimmicks, Republican leaders will pounce. If he asks for a straight-up budget increase, Republicans could just say no.

With relations between Warner and House leaders at an ebb, there may be no way to avoid that kind of a confrontation.

The Republican delegates who went after Warner say the problem with his office budget is symptomatic of a bigger issue: trust. Several have been simmering for months about the improving economy, apparently thinking Warner misled them by understating the recovery so that he could pass a tax increase.

House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith (R-Salem) said the House leadership has a basic lack of faith in dealing with Warner. "At some point, we're going to have to bring it to a head and say you can't keep doing this stuff," Griffith said.

There is one bright spot on the horizon: Warner and House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford), who rarely spoke during the 2004 General Assembly session, had lunch together last week.

Word has it the lunch was cordial and that the two most powerful politicians in Virginia might now appreciate that continued rancor threatens any progress on funding for transportation and higher education.

Warner was able to work around Howell in 2004 by creating a coalition of Democrats, Senate Republicans and, ultimately, a group of moderate House Republicans who broke with their leadership on the tax issue.

But there's little indication Warner can assemble that coalition at will for other issues. And it's doubtful that Howell wants to be cast in the role of naysayer again, just before his members face voters at the polls next year.

The election might indeed be the deciding factor.

Will it bring House Republican leaders and Warner together in the interest of showing voters they can get something done? Or will it force them further apart as they draw lines in the sand to help define the election?

The latter is a good bet. But we won't know until February, when (we hope) the 2005 session ends.