For the new Congress convening on Thursday, the questions of peace and war are waiting, with added urgency as the days dwindle toward the Jan. 15 deadline for Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait.

Five months of intermittent debate and a dozen House and Senate hearings have produced no answers and scant guidance to define the role of the Democratic Congress in a crisis under Republican management.At this point, it's a crisis on hold for the holidays.

At a quiet Capitol, recorded telephone messages report some offices closed until after the New Year. President Bush is at Camp David, Md., on an 11-day break.

There's little traffic and less tension in the capital, even as reinforcements are deployed in the Persian Gulf and the Saudi Arabian desert, building to the troop strength that could deliver on the U.S. threat to take the offensive after mid-January. That's when the United Nations has authorized the use of force if necessary.

According to the Democratic leaders of Congress, U.S. forces cannot be sent to fight without congressional approval. According to the Republican administration, Bush already has all the authority he needs to act.

That debate will resume when Congress does. It won't be conclusive. The answer has been elusive for two centuries under a constitutional system that makes the president the commander in chief and empowers only Congress to declare war.

Bush has met with congressional leaders several times over the gulf crisis, and, according to Senate Republican Leader Bob Dole of Kansas, will do so again Thursday, as soon as the new Congress is sworn in. Defense Secretary Richard Cheney and Secretary of State James A. Baker III also are expected to participate in the sessions.

There were demands during the fall that Congress be summoned back to declare war. There were calls for a resolution of approval for Bush's policy of threatening military action against Iraqi occupation of Kuwait. There were proposals to invoke the creaky machinery of the war powers system, under which a president can't send troops into danger unless Congress approves.

None of that happened, and none of it is likely to happen now.

But in one form or another, the 102nd Congress is going to have to come to clear, majority decisions on the Persian Gulf, possibly but not necessarily on direct questions of policy, certainly on the money and manpower to back up that policy.

The administration will need a supplemental appropriation of up to $20 billion early this year to finance Operation Desert Shield. Call-up authority for some support units summoned to active duty will begin expiring in March unless Congress extends it or Bush declares a national emergency.

And there may have to be action later in the year to change the timetable for cutbacks that are supposed to reduce active duty military forces by at least 80,000 before next Sept. 30.

An attempt to write a policy resolutionmbers of Congress that he would welcome a resolution of support, along the lines of the United Nations resolution authorizing force after Jan. 15, but "if you're going to debate this for months and not reach a conclusion and argue about it, then that may not be helpful ... "

Resolutions endorsing his policy were adopted by overwhelming votes in the House and Senate early in October, backing "continued action by the president ... to deter Iraqi aggression and protect American lives and vital interests." But the authors of those measures said they covered only what had been done to that point, and did not authorize the use of force.

When those measures passed, the strategy for forcing Iraq's withdrawal from Kuwait was built around economic sanctions against Iraq, with the United States assigned to defend Saudi Arabia against any attack by Saddam Hussein's forces.

On Nov. 8, Bush ordered U.S. forces doubled, to create the capability and raise the possibility of military action to retake Kuwait. Democratic leaders were told of the decision shortly before Bush announced it. And support that had been almost unanimous began to fray, with Democrats urging patience, to give economic sanctions more time to work.

But Democrats can't risk becoming the party of dissent while American forces are at risk. That could weaken the U.S. position in the current confrontation, at a time when Bush says the best way to avoid war is to convince Saddam Hussein that he faces war unless he relents. And it could do them lasting political damage. Vice President Dan Quayle produced a preview of a Republican counterattack, saying earlier this month that "patience at any price" would amount to appeasement of Saddam Hussein.

As the debate resumes, Sen. George J. Mitchell, D-Maine, the majority leader, says whatever the differences on timing and tactics, the United States is united on the goal of getting Iraq out of Kuwait.

The question is how.