Top House Democrats are leaning toward support of a congressional resolution that would endorse the Bush administration's action so far in the Persian Gulf crisis but would not authorize in advance the use of U.S. forces in combat there, congressional sources said yesterday.

"If the situation requires the nation to go to war I'm sure the president will come to Congress and ask for a declaration of war," said House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Dante B. Fascell (D-Fla.) following a meeting with the panel's subcommittee chairmen. Fascell added that Congress might also give its support for military action in other less formal ways.

Yesterday's committee discussions along with other meetings in the Senate last week represent the first efforts by Congress to define its role in the seven-week-old crisis.

That process will continue today when a House Appropriations subcommittee takes up a $1.8 billion emergency appropriations bill to cover unbudgeted Pentagon costs through Sept. 30 in connection with Operation Desert Shield.

Included in the administration proposal is a request for sweeping Pentagon powers to use gifts, money, services and property contributed by other nations "as the secretary {of defense} deems appropriate," and without going through Congress.

Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.), who chairs the House Appropriations defense subcommittee, yesterday described the proposed "National Defense Gift Fund" as "unacceptable." He added, "They will have to be accountable to Congress." House Armed Services Committee Chairman Les Aspin (D-Wis.) said he would also seek to put the funds, described by some lawmakers as a Pentagon "slush fund," under congressional control.

A more difficult question facing leaders in both houses is whether, and how, to assert a congressional policy role in the Persian Gulf crisis. The problem is how to craft a resolution that will send a message of U.S. solidarity to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein without giving President Bush what several members called "a blank check" to use American forces.

Democratic leaders and Republican supporters of the administration worry that a floor debate over the gulf confrontation might be taken as a sign of U.S. disunity. With elections less than two months away, Democrats do not want to appear to be withholding support for the president in the middle of a crisis. At the same time, some do not want to align themselves with a policy that could become unpopular later.

Nonetheless, support appears to be growing among Democrats for Congress to get involved. House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) reportedly favors a resolution that would endorse the president's action but require consultation on further steps.

The issue was also discussed last week at a meeting of nine Senate Democrats convened by Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Maine). Among ideas under consideration is a concurrent resolution that would endorse the president's action under U.N. resolutions, but would also support "continued action" by the president in accordance with U.N. Security Council decisions and "our constitutional and statutory processes."

"We ought to do something," said Sen. John Breaux (D-La.), a member of the Mitchell group. "I support the president. But further authorization would be needed {if he goes further}. You're not talking about price supports for agriculture, but about hostilities."

Rep. Stephen J. Solarz (D-N.Y.), one of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee chairmen who met yesterday with Fascell, said there was "a feeling that it would be useful to have a resolution that Congress has a role to play. If we move forward with one able to command bipartisan support in the House, it would make sure that the message to Saddam was clear and unmistakable."

Fascell said yesterday that it is important for Congress to share in the "responsibility" for the action that is being undertaken and to "shoulder some of the burden." He praised the president's "diligence" in keeping Congress informed but said he favored consultation on any future action.

Staff writer Tom Kenworthy contributed to this report.