House Republicans meet today to decide intramural contests that reflect the frustrations and fractiousness of the past year's budget battle and could signal what course the divided and diminished minority party wants to take.

The positions at stake -- the chairmanships of the House Republican Conference and the National Republican Congressional Committee, which is the House GOP campaign apparatus -- are not high-profile posts. But the jockeying comes after a session marked by bitter struggles, both among House Republicans and with the Bush administration, and after an election that left the GOP with the fewest House members in a decade.

Against this backdrop, the 167 Republicans who will serve in the 102nd Congress, which convenes Jan. 3, will cast their ballots today. Their meeting will continue Tuesday.

No major leadership challenges face House Democrats, who meet today through Wednesday.

Congressional leadership races can be curious affairs. They mix the popularity contests of high school and the intrigue of the Medicis. They are fought at two sometimes conflicting levels, often pitting personal friendships and political aspirations against ideological alliances and party goals. Decided by politicians in a secret ballot, they can yield surprising results.

Unhappiness over the House Republicans' performance in the budget fight is fueling the challenge by Rep. Carl D. Pursell (Mich.) to Rep. Jerry Lewis (Calif.) to be conference chairman, the third-highest post in the House GOP leadership.

Pursell joined the revolt led by House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich (Ga.) -- who is supporting his challenge -- against the White House over the package of tax increases and spending cuts backed by President Bush.

Lewis, on the other hand, was the only member of the House GOP leadership other than House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (Ill.) to support the package and was openly critical of Gingrich for leading the opposition to his party's president. By walking away from the process, the rebellious Republicans gave House Democrats a greater say in the final product.

Lewis, 56, is a House insider who can work with Democrats to leave his imprint on legislation, a role symbolized by his position as the ranking Republican on the House Appropriations subcommittee that controls the money that Congress spends on itself.

That role may be too compliant for more restive House Republicans. Pursell, 57, was something of a rebel in the early 1980s when he was one of the moderate "Gypsy Moths" who challenged President Ronald Reagan's spending priorities. Although he has since become more of a party loyalist, he was also one of the first House Republicans to complain about White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu's threat to withhold presidential support from those who did not support the budget agreement.

Pursell has told his colleagues that more emphasis needs to be put on developing GOP alternatives. "The Republican Conference should, and can, craft better policies than the Democrats," Pursell said when he announced his candidacy.

The outcome of the contest between Lewis and Pursell could not only affect congressional relations with the Bush administration for the next two years, it could have an impact on who the next House GOP leader will be. Lewis and Gingrich, who is No. 2 in the House Republican leadership, are widely viewed as the most likely contenders to succeed Michel.

Michel, who is 67 and beginning his 18th House term, is widely expected to retire at the end of 1992. Asked earlier this fall about his plans, he said: "I don't think about retirement -- much."

Lewis rejected a direct challenge to Gingrich for the whip's job. In a letter to his colleagues, Lewis wrote that House Republicans "need to be united -- not divided -- as we apply our energy toward expanding our numbers."

The race to head the NRCC, generally considered the lesser of the contested jobs, has taken on a surprisingly nasty tone as challenger Rep. Don Sundquist (Tenn.) has raised pointed questions about the 16-year tenure of incumbent chairman Rep. Guy Vander Jagt (Mich.).

Sundquist has questioned the financial management of the committee and suggested financial conflicts of interest between certain NRCC officials and consultants and businesses that deal with the committee. He also points out that the party has lost in each of the last three elections, including Bush's strong victory in 1988.

"I'm hurt that one Republican would do that to another," Vander Jagt said.

Vander Jagt's backers claim Sundquist, who has close ties to Bush, was pushed into the race by Sununu. White House officials were angered when NRCC co-chairman Edward J. Rollins told GOP House candidates to feel free to distance themselves from Bush's budget package.

Sundquist contends his candidacy is the result of widespread frustrations among House Republicans over the NRCC's performance. "The White House didn't get me to run," he said.

But the suggestion of a link with Sununu, who is unpopular with House Republicans, could hurt Sundquist. On Friday, Vander Jagt claimed to have more than 100 commitments, more than enough to prevail.

Candidates in congressional leadership elections campaign for votes in one of the toughest precincts politicians can confront. Lawmakers are adept at telling people what they want to hear, and words that sound like commitments may not always be commitments.

Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), who has held more Senate leadership positions than any other lawmaker, once said he was wary of colleagues who told him, " 'You don't have to worry about me.' I never counted them for me," he said. And even those whom he did count for him did not always deliver. One year, Byrd kept the handwritten ballots that had elected him Democratic leader in order to determine who had not carried through.

Two years ago, when Senate Democrats elected Sen. George J. Mitchell (Maine) to succeed Byrd, the wily West Virginian moved that the ballots be burned.