The 102nd Congress convenes Thursday with the country on the brink of war, the economy in trouble and the government too deep in debt to provide more help for the poor, the old, the sick, the homeless and the jobless.

The euphoria over the end of the Cold War that gripped Congress only a year ago and the vision of a multibillion-dollar "peace dividend" that could be used to cut the budget deficit and provide for domestic programs is gone.Instead, the nation's lawmakers, returning from a two-month recess, are faced with the possibility of young Americans fighting and dying to liberate Kuwait from occupation by Iraq.

And they must deal with a sick economy that is either in or on the verge of a recession, with no anticipation of a quick or robust return to the boom days of the late 1980s.

Under normal circumstances, Congress would return Jan. 3 for the traditional swearing-in ceremonies and spend most of the month drafting an agenda for the year, put the final touches on organizing committees and await President Bush's annual report on the "State of the Union" and the administration's fiscal 1992 budget.

That leisurely opening has been scrapped, and Speaker Thomas Foley, Senate Democratic leader George Mitchell and Republican Senate leader Robert Dole have been and will be discussing how to approach the issue of the Persian Gulf crisis.

"I anticipate that during that time, there will not be a recess, but rather, at some point during that period, this matter may be discussed," Mitchell told a news conference shortly after returning from a trip to the Middle East.

"I think it unwise to make a decision now that would effectively preclude modification based upon events that might occur between now and Jan. 3," he told reporters. "And so the best I can say is that I expect this matter will be considered during that period, but I have not made any decision as to precisely when or in what circumstance, depending upon events and further consultations."

When Bush sent American forces to protect Saudi Arabia and forged a worldwide alliance that imposed sanctions on Iraq and secured military and financial help from many nations, he was strongly supported by Congress.

But the situation changed dramatically after Bush nearly doubled the U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf and a United Nations resolution authorized the use of offensive force on or after Jan. 15 to drive Iraq out of Kuwait.

Bush's increasing belligerence - which Mitchell calls "the threat of war to avert war" - has caused anxiety among members of Congress and no consensus has formed on what the Senate and House should do.

It is possible that Bush will ask Congress for a resolution allowing him to take action under the U.N. mandate.

But there are many who fear another Gulf of Tonkin resolution that would give the president an open-ended authorization, and others want to try the sanctions longer to see if they will work. Some members are also talking about a declaration of war, the first since 1941, which brought the United States into World War II.

So dominant has the issue of war become as Congress prepares to begin another session, there is little talk about what else the Senate and House might do in the two years leading to the next presidential election.

The Democrats go into the session in better shape than the Republicans. They hold a 56-44 majority in the Senate and control the House 267-167. There is also a socialist member, Rep. Bernard Sanders of Vermont.

Although the Democrats' majority is only marginally larger than in the last two years, the Republicans ended the year in total disarray after Bush backed off his "no new taxes" campaign pledge and sent GOP conservatives into orbit.

But Bush probably still holds a trump card - the veto. Congress failed to override any of his vetoes in the past two years, and his threat of a veto reshaped many pieces of legislation.

Although Bush appears to command the loyalties of most Republicans in the Senate, he must deal with the breakaway conservatives in the House, led by the GOP's No. 2 man, Rep. Newt Gingrich, R-Ga.

The one area - the budget - that provoked the most partisan quarrels last year may not play as big a role in the 102nd Congress.