Democratic leaders want President Bush to take the initiative in seeking congressional support for any action in the Persian Gulf, especially if Secretary of State James A. Baker III returns empty-handed from his planned visit to Baghdad, according to congressional sources.

A failure in Baker's talks with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein would make the new 102nd Congress more supportive of any presidential move, sources in both parties said.

Rep. Henry J. Hyde (Ill.), ranking Republican on the House intelligence committee and now on a trip to the region, said in an interview that "there would be momentum {for Congress} to do something" if Baker returned empty-handed.

At the Nov. 30 White House meeting between Bush and congressional leaders, Hyde passed a handwritten note to Baker that said, "You'll never get the affirmation you want from Congress unless your mission to Baghdad fails. . . and I pray to God it doesn't."

House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) and Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Maine) already have decided to keep Congress in session after the members are sworn in Jan. 3, the sources said, instead of recessing for two weeks as in other years. They expect Bush to meet quickly with congressional leaders after he talks here with Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz and Baker returns from Iraq.

Rep. Dante Fascell (D-Fla.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and a supporter of the president's gulf policies to date, said in a telephone interview that he believes Saddam will not back down in the talks with Baker, based on his conversations with administration sources.

Fascell said he expects Bush will then have to work behind the scenes on Capitol Hill to develop consensus for a resolution "to free him to act and show Congress supports him."

"There is a broader base in Congress, and even among Democrats, for the use of force than is generally believed," Fascell said. "But there is a wishful part among them that says let's not go to war."

Several members said they believed Bush wanted to schedule Baker's trip to Baghdad for early January to allow time to respond to any proposal from Saddam or to get a resolution from Congress supporting the use of force, a move that would bolster the threat of U.S. military action after Jan. 15, the United Nations' deadline for Iraqi forces to get out of Kuwait.

"It all depends on what happens between now and then," said Rep. Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee responsible for the Middle East.

However, some House members are already circulating a proposed resolution, to be introduced on Jan. 3, that praises Bush's diplomatic and economic initiatives and then declares that "any offensive action taken against Iraq must be explicitly approved by the Congress of the United States before such action may be initiated."

The measure is similar to one approved 177 to 37 in the House Democrats' closed-door caucus last week.

"It is one of the few ways available before Jan. 15th for you to assert your support for exercising the constitutional responsibility of the Congress -- not the president -- to decide this important issue of war or peace," wrote the two sponsors, Reps. Charles E. Bennett (D-Fla.) and Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.).

But key House Democrats, including some in the leadership, oppose the proposal on grounds it would create a debate over presidential war-making authority when the Baker mission will be the focus of world attention.

"Any result on that resolution doesn't help with the main issue," Hamilton said.

Domestic politics hovers behind the legislative maneuvering. At the Nov. 30 White House meetings, Republican leaders told Bush that if he withheld force, and sanctions continued for more than a year, the gulf crisis could run into the presidential primary season.

House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.) made an impassioned plea that the issue not be "chewed around in the presidential campaign," according to one Republican who was present. As Bush looked on, the Republicans asked the Democrats for assurance that their candidates would not attack the president for keeping troops in the Saudi desert.

Foley suggested that Bush could defend himself by saying he was doing what Democrats had recommended: letting the sanctions work, sources said.