The new 102nd Congress had barely convened when it found itself lost in the murk of the Persian Gulf issue - afraid to assert its constitutional prerogatives, and afraid not to.

But now lawmakers appear poised to take the risk they have shied away from for the five months of the crisis: a vote on whether war should be waged over Iraq's occupation of Kuwait.It is unclear just what shape the debate and votes will take when they occur before Jan. 15, the United Nations-ordered deadline for Iraq's withdrawal.

President Bush's supporters will press for an authorization of force. Democratic leaders appear to prefer to call for a continuation of economic sanctions. Others want to simply assert that Bush must first come to Congress for permission to go to war.

Why has it taken so long for lawmakers to come to a decision point?

The problem has been modern history is little guide as lawmakers grope for a consensus, not only on what U.S. policy should be in the labyrinthian Middle East, but on what their own role should be.

Experience has come mostly at the extremes of the war-and-peace question. In World War II, Pearl Harbor left little dissent on the decision to declare war. More recently, U.S. invasions of Grenada and Panama were carried out without Congress being asked.

But unlike Grenada and Panama, the Persian Gulf crisis involves more than 400,000 U.S. troops and more than five months of very public planning, posturing and diplomacy. It is not something that can be ignored.

How lawmakers deal with it, or fail to deal with it, could well define the congressional role in future military crises. And it has not escaped the institution's Democratic leaders that their performance will have lasting political consequences, as well.

Democrats fear that if they shy away from the use of force, they could be tagged as the party of "peace at any price," the phrase used by Theodore Roosevelt in a 1917 list of "things that will destroy America."

But many also remember the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, the act used by President Johnson as license to build up U.S. forces in Vietnam - and to spread the blame to Congress.

The Senate began debate on the issue last Friday, and debate in the House is expected to begin as early as Thursday, the day after Secretary of State James A. Baker III meets in Geneva with Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz. Both chambers hope to vote by Jan. 15, the deadline set for Iraq's withdrawal in a United Nations resolution.

Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan., predicted Sunday that a resolution authorizing President Bush to use force against Iraq could pass by a roughly 60-40 vote in his chamber. Speaker Thomas S. Foley, D-Wash., said it could pass narrowly in the House.

Such a resolution would "in a sense" be equivalent to a declaration of war," Foley said on ABC-TV's "This Week With David Brinkley."

Bush himself has done little to ease the dilemma. He has said he would like a wholehearted vote of confidence from Congress, but he knows its leaders are right when they say they can't control the outcome of any debate on the gulf.

Thus, the White House has not formally proposed a resolution to Capitol Hill, and Congress, which is better at reacting than acting, has had a difficult time figuring out what to do.

Congressional reticence was evident in the first days after Saddam Hussein's forces rolled into Kuwait on Aug. 2. The House and Senate approved separate resolutions commending Bush's efforts to create an international alliance and press economic sanctions against Iraq. But both carefully avoided the issue of offensive military action.

That was followed by a brief argument over whether to enforce the War Powers Act, the modern-day expression of Congress' warmaking right. But that tack was abandoned because if pressed, it would ultimately force Bush to bring U.S. troops home, an outcome neither party wanted.

The first real criticism from Congress followed Bush's sudden announcement on Nov. 8 that U.S. forces would be doubled to provide a credible threat of offensive action against Iraq. Democrats argued that the administration seemed to be abandoning its own policy of economic sanctions in a rush toward war.

Congressional critics also complained that the White House had not made an adequate case for putting U.S. forces at risk. Hearings were called, but by then, Congress was out of session for the year.