On the surface, it was a simple, straightforward proposal to require the Reagan administration to inform Congress fully on its plans for protecting U.S. interests in the Persian Gulf. But a fractious House last week saw in the fine print everything from a latter-day Gulf of Tonkin resolution to a "sniveling" response to a grave crisis. For some it was a script for congressional "micro-meddling" in foreign policy; for others it was a trap to ensnare Congress in any blame for failure.

"We are confused," said Rep. George W. Gekas (R-Pa.) in what may have been the most telling comment of the day. "If you are not confused, I am, and I am willing to admit it. That may be the difference between me and most of you."

When the House eventually passed the measure, torn to the end over possible hidden meanings, it had become a metaphor for Congress' anxiety, ambivalence and frustration over the gulf crisis, the administration's handling of it and risks inherent in any congressional response.

"When in doubt, ask for a report," observed a senior congressional aide, only half-facetiously.

The Senate is no less tormented than the House. Speaking of the administration plans to give Kuwaiti tankers protection of the U.S. flag and naval escort, Minority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) said of his colleagues, "They don't like reflagging, and they don't like the alternatives."

As in previous controversies involving a threat of military confrontation, most recently including the protracted quarrel over U.S. military involvement in Lebanon in the early 1980s, Congress is also asking -- but not answering -- broader questions about its proper role in conduct of foreign policy.

Especially when the White House and Congress are in the hands of opposing parties, Congress is sensitive to charges of meddling. But haunted by memories of the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin resolution that made it a partner in deepening U.S. involvement in Vietnam, it is reluctant to look the other way or, worse, to sign anything that could later look like a blank check.

"If another tragedy should occur, the administration -- you can bet your bottom dollar -- is going to say Congress had its chance to voice the opposition" and did not, warned Rep. Ted Weiss (D-N.Y.). "War is coming in that area, and I do not want congressional fingerprints on that course of action," said Rep. Toby Roth (R-Wis.).

Congress has both the power of the purse to cut off funds and the post-Vietnam era War Powers Resolution to require congressional approval for any sustained deployment of U.S. troops in a foreign conflict. But except in extreme cases, Congress is reluctant to defy a president on foreign policy and to invite blame for the consequences if they go awry.

"If you agree, you're a coconspirator. If you disagree, you're a saboteur," said a Senate aide.

Instead, Congress tends to settle for halfway measures, starting with demands for consultation and working toward threats of more dire action, using both its purse strings and war-powers constraints as leverage to nudge the administration toward its viewpoint.

As of now, Congress appears to be pressing mainly for time, awaiting the administration report, which is expected next week, and suggesting alternatives such as a peacekeeping role for the United Nations and calling for the involvement of U.S. allies, which could be slow in coming.

"The main thing is to slow it down . . . to avoid precipitous action," said Sen. Jim Sasser (D-Tenn.), who visited the gulf recently at the request of the Senate leadership.

Perhaps more than most foreign-policy conflicts during the Reagan era, the perils in the Persian Gulf, brought home by the deaths of 37 American sailors when Iraqi missiles hit the USS Stark three weeks ago, churn up deep political as well as national-security concerns among lawmakers.

The gulf crisis hits almost every raw nerve: loss of American lives, an unprovoked attack on a U.S. naval vessel, threats to freedom of navigation that have led to more than 200 ships being attacked since 1984, concern over world oil supplies (even though the United States gets little oil from the Persian Gulf), anxiety over war risks in the Middle East, fears of Soviet expansion in the region but concern over a U.S.-Soviet confrontation there, anger at Iran but reluctance to tilt toward Iraq (especially after its attack on the Stark), a realization that the United States could end up shooting at Iraq, and resentment at the reluctance of Europe and Japan to help protect oil that flows mainly in their direction.

These concerns are aggravated by what many lawmakers see as a pattern of poorly planned and executed military ventures by the administration and a contemptuous refusal to consult with Congress before undertaking them.

Together, they reinforce objections to the administration's plan. But they do not point toward alternative strategies, especially ones that might meet administration objectives. For instance, Sen. John H. Chafee (R-R.I.) suggests that a cooperative U.S.-Soviet effort in the gulf might reduce risks of a wider war but acknowledges that the administration proposed U.S. reflagging mainly to keep the Soviet flag out of the gulf.

To the extent that there is a consensus in Congress, it was probably best summed up last week by Sens. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Chafee and Reps. Jim Leach (R-Iowa) and Howard E. Wolpe (D-Mich.).

"Americans do not want to cut and run from the Persian Gulf," Leach said. "They also do not want a reflagging of vessels that implies choosing sides in a conflict that begs neutrality. The case for allowing our Navy to be held hostage in the Persian Gulf as the Foreign Service was in Tehran, as our Marines were in Beirut, is simply uncompelling."

Said Kennedy: "The United States clearly has vital interests in the gulf, and we must be prepared to defend them. But first, Congress must be reassured that our actions are designed to put out the flames of the gulf war, not fan them higher."

"Let us not place American flags on Kuwaiti tankers until we clearly understand why we should do so, until we recognize the potential consequences of such action and until we are prepared to accept those consequences over a very long period," Chafee said. "Those who go tiger-hunting better be prepared to find tigers," he added.

"By flagging Kuwait tankers," said Wolpe, "the administration is either making a promise of protection it cannot keep or it is indicating its willingness to involve the United States in the Iranian-Iraqi war and to send American boys to die halfway around the world defending other people's oil. If the former is true, the policy is foolish. If the latter is true, the policy is deadly serious and we should be here today debating the war powers act."

But these commentaries, along with most others heard over the past week, say more about what should not be done than what should be done.

"We're still feeling our way," Sasser said. "There is unease, apprehension, anxiety. Beyond that, few people's views are fully formed."

Added a House Democratic aide: "People are strung out all over the map, Republicans as well as Democrats. They're not focused on alternatives. But they do know they don't ever want the remotest possibility of being associated {with the administration policy}."