The Defense Department and Congress are squaring off over the creation of a new assistant secretary of defense -- more precisely, the first nominee to fill the post -- in one of those bitter struggles over bureaucratic turf that Washington specializes in and consumes an amazing amount of time, heat and energy.

More than three months after the White House forwarded to Congress the name of the Pentagon's candidate, Kenneth P. Bergquist, a confirmation hearing has yet to be scheduled and congressional sources said it's touch and go whether he will be approved.

"It's a test of will between elements in the Pentagon -- the civilian side -- and Congress," one congressional source said. "It's unbelievable how this thing has dragged out."

Bergquist calls it "a great cat fight" over who is going to get the job.

Bergquist is not alone. He is one of seven nominees the Defense Department charges are being held hostage by the Senate Armed Services Committee in the "battle of the budget."

"We are suffering," said Pentagon spokesman Robert B. Sims. "We've been waiting for a long time. These appointments are important for the good management of the department."

Other confirmations that have been delayed include Frank J. Gaffney, nominated as assistant secretary of defense for international security policy on April 22; June Gibbs Brown, inspector general-designate named April 23; Kathleen Buck, nominated as general counsel July 9; Stephen M. Duncan, named assistant secretary of defense for reserve affairs Aug. 7, and John J. Welch, nominated as the Air Force's acquisition chief July 2.

The committee also has failed to conduct hearings on promoting Lt. Gen. James Abrahamson to a four-star general in his role as head of the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization.

Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger has sent a sharply worded letter to Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) protesting the delays and charging that they have disrupted the department's functioning. Nunn replied that it was the fault of the nominees because they had not completed the necessary "paper work."

The delay over confirmation of the new assistant secretary of defense is far from being a matter of "paper work." There is a long tug of war behind it.

The ponderous title of the new office is "assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict (SP/LIC);" its nickname is the "Special Ops" command. Its mission is to deal with the mounting terrorism against U.S. interests around the world and spreading Third World insurgencies and counterinsurgencies by uniting the secret special operation units scattered throughout the U.S. armed forces under a single command.

Its creation earlier this year was mandated by Congress at the insistence of a small group of determined lawmakers led by Sen. William S. Cohen (R-Maine), ranking minority member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Rep. Dan Daniel (D-Va.), chairman of the House readiness subcommittee, and Nunn.

The Pentagon resisted the establishment of the command, fearing it would mushroom into a full, separate fifth branch of the armed forces competing in sharp rivalry with the others for missions, prestige and resources.

But the U.S. Special Operations Command, based in the old headquarters of the defunct U.S. Readiness Command at Mac Dill Air Force Base in Florida and under Gen. James J. Lindsay, is now a reality.

This has left proponents and opponents of the new command to fight over the Defense Department's nominee for the new assistant secretaryship. Bergquist currently is a deputy assistant attorney general at the Justice Department.

Congressional "Special Ops" enthusiasts regard the nomination of Bergquist, an Army Special Forces reserve lieutenant colonel, as a bureaucratic ploy to undermine the new command, a last bid by the Pentagon to thwart the "will of Congress."

The chief naysayer, according to the enthusiasts, is Richard L. Armitage, the assistant secretary for international security affairs, whose office has overseen special operations. Attempts to reach Armitage for comment were unsuccessful.

Rep. Daniel is particuarly upset by the appointment, finding Bergquist "unsuitable" for the job with "neither the stature, experience nor discipline" to handle it. Daniel thinks the first person to hold the new Pentagon post is key to the future of the new command and will "probably have the greatest impact on how the legislation is implemented."

Daniel said in an interview that he regards Bergquist as an ally of "an element in the Defense Department which is hostile to implementation of this legislation." He identified the "element" as Armitage.

Daniel's apparent hostility toward Bergquist seems to be shared elsewhere on the Hill, where several aides familiar with the feud said Bergquist has "a perception" and "credibility" problem because of negative remarks about an earlier reorganization plan.

In an interview, Bergquist said his remarks, made in 1983 at a conference on the role of special operations in U.S. military strategy, have been "misrepresented."

Bergquist provided a copy of his earlier comments to explain his views on reorganizing U.S. special forces. Commenting on a paper presented by a colleague, Bergquist said he believed the creation of "a mixed military and civilian joint command" to handle insurgency and counterinsurgency warfare would be "fundamentally unworkable." But he also said he favored a regrouping of "the disparate special operations assets of each service" in "a joint special operations headquarters."

He acknowledged that "as a matter of personal opinion," he is against the idea of Congress telling the Pentagon how it should organize its internal affairs or how many assistant secretaries it should have.

"It's my opinion Congress should be reluctant to mandate subordinate staff departments," he said.