The surprising thing is that it didn't happen sooner: Congress and the Bush administration are at odds over the power to make war.

Worried that fighting might start in the Persian Gulf while Congress is not in session, senators have urged Secretary of State James Baker not to take unilateral action. Instead, they say, the president should summon Congress back to Washington and ask it to declare war before launching any strike.Baker, quite properly, declined to be bound to such a course - desirable though it would be politically. What president sending soldiers into combat would not prefer to have Congress committed to his action? A public declaration would remove any ambiguity about the commitment to win.

But the Constitution allows the president to act without prior approval from Congress, as Truman did in Korea and as Reagan and Bush did on a smaller scale in Libya, Grenada and Panama. There could be a practical reason for doing so again - namely, timing.

If the United Nations embargo of Iraq were judged a failure and the decision made to expel the invader from Kuwait by military means, the president would want our forces to have the advantage of surprise attack. As commander in chief, he would be most reluctant to throw away that edge while the Security Council debated or members of Congress held hearings and studied polls.

There must, of course, be consultation behind the scenes. Bush, with his passion for telephoning world leaders, instinctively understands this. Since the gulf crisis erupted on Aug. 2, he has reported to Congress "consistent with" the War Powers Act (though not "pursuant to" that law, passed in 1973 over President Nixon's veto and deemed unconstitutional by all subsequent administrations). Congress has endorsed Operation Desert Shield by funding it. The president must continue talking with congressional leaders.

Bush's actions in the gulf so far suggest that he is unlikely to make a hasty decision. He stresses that force will be a last resort. He knows the value of retaining the moral high ground, as his painstaking work through the United Nations shows.

If anything, the appropriate fear is the opposite: that Bush might place higher priority on maintaining international support and popularity at home than on achieving his strategic objectives in the gulf.