The chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee said yesterday that an income tax surtax may be needed to finance the U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf.

Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.) told reporters he would back such a tax and believes that voters would "enthusiastically" support it -- if it is tied directly to the deployment of forces against Iraq's Saddam Hussein.

That aside, however, he urged his fellow Democrats to propose no new taxes in 1991, saying that there is "an adamant attitude" against higher taxes, because "voters do not believe we're spending their money wisely."

Warning that the recently enacted budget agreement would make new domestic initiatives difficult to finance, Rostenkowski said he hoped the Ways and Means Committee would focus its efforts on rooting out waste, inefficiency and marginally useful spending in the programs it controls -- including Social Security and Medicare, the two biggest entitlement programs for the elderly. Any savings, he said, should be devoted to programs for children.

In suggesting a Persian Gulf surtax, Rostenkowski joined Senate Budget Committee Chairman Jim Sasser (D-Tenn.). The Chicago Democrat said that the costs of the buildup, which were placed "off-budget" in the October summit, are mounting so rapidly "they have to be paid for."

The Pentagon has not issued a formal estimate of the costs beyond the $15 billion price tag it put on the initial deployment. Unofficial estimates are that the costs of the expanded forces could be almost double that amount -- even if there are no hostilities. Administration officials have indicated that Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have offered to pay most, if not all, of those additional costs. But Rostenkowski said he was "not aware" of any agreement that would cover the billions in additional spending involved in Operation Desert Shield.

In suggesting that his committee will cast a critical eye on the costs of Social Security and Medicare, Rostenkowski walked back into a political thicket that has scarred him in the past -- and where few others of either party are eager to go.

He recalled that he had proposed a temporary freeze on cost-of-living adjustments for retirees and had battled with senior citizens' groups over the financing of medical benefits. He remarked yesterday that the elderly "don't want to pay for anything they get," adding that he frequently meets people who say they are going to turn back their Social Security checks "because they don't need them, but they never turn them back."

Rostenkowski also said he wanted to see why federal funds are going "to rural hospitals with empty beds," while hospitals in Chicago and other cities are being forced to close for lack of federal reimbursement funds.

But the Ways and Means chairman bluntly warned mayors and governors to expect no additional help from the federal government in balancing their budgets: "You can't get something from us that we haven't got."

He said that many Democratic committee chairmen are unhappy at discovering how tightly constrained new spending will be under the pay-as-you-go rules of the October budget agreement, but "I'm wallowing in happiness" at the prospect that they will have to come to the Ways and Means panel for revenues to support any new policy initiatives.

He also coined a phrase for what he sees as a respite from budget battles and new domestic program initiatives. "We are in the valley of lullness," Rostenkowski said.