Congressional aides and administration officials have begun exploring possible language for a congressional resolution that would give President Bush limited authority to use force to free Kuwait.

One draft section would require Bush to assert that all other nonmilitary means have been exhausted before he employs U.S. troops, according to congressional and administration sources. It also would narrow the purpose and scope of military action outlined in a resolution approved last month by the United Nations Security Council, the sources said.

For example, unlike the U.N. resolution, a version being discussed would not permit force to be used to establish "peace and stability in the region" because, one source said, a commitment such as that could keep U.S. troops in the area "into the 21st century."

The discussions are informal and preliminary because Bush and his top aides have not yet decided whether to propose a resolution when Congress returns in January. There also is no consensus within Congress over what its next step will be beyond the message given the White House last week by Democratic leaders of the House and Senate that Bush must take the initiative on any resolution authorizing the use of force.

The drafting task is made harder because both the president and Congress want to maintain their constitutional prerogatives, the former to order troops into battle and the latter to declare war. On a less elevated level, the traditional antagonisms between the branches -- as one longtime congressional aide put it, "the White House considers Congress 'obstructionist,' we consider presidents 'arrogant' " -- also must be overcome.

After several internal debates on the issue over the past two weeks, the White House "has not changed its position on going to Congress because we don't have a position yet," one administration official said.

The official added that Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney, a former congressman, "is the most cautious" because he is afraid Congress will severely limit the resolution. White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu is "unsure," but afraid the answer from Capitol Hill will be "no thanks." And Secretary of State James A. Baker III "is a little more confident Congress would go along, so a little more apt to want to go for it."

Vice President Quayle, considered within the administration as one of the better "reads" on the mood of Congress, still leans toward asking for a congressional resolution but is not pushing it as aggressively as he did earlier this month.

When Congress returns Jan. 3 there will be a major debate on Persian Gulf policy regardless of whether Bush seeks authorization for the use of force, according to congressional sources.

Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), who supports a Bush initiative, said yesterday that "it is up to Congress to become a participant, but not in a way that undercuts work done by the president and U.N. to date."

Warner added that Bush calling for use of force while some members of Congress oppose it, and both "supporting our forces in the field," could create the same kind of confusion as occurred during the Vietnam War.

Bush discussed the possibility of a resolution briefly yesterday with Sens. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii) and Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), who have just returned from the gulf. Several congressional delegations have visited the area during the adjournment. A group that includes Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Maine) is to meet with Bush by the end of the week.

White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said the two senators told Bush that congressional leaders have yet to decide on the timing and wording of such a congressional resolution and that the president would continue consulting during the holiday period on the issue.

Twice before, in September and November, key members of Congress encouraged Bush to offer language for resolutions that would have given him authority to use force, and twice the president turned them down on the recommendation of his staff and other legislators, who argued that the ensuing debate would send the wrong signal to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

A draft resolution proposed in September by Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.), ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, would have permitted the use of U.S. troops if they were part of an international force acting under a Security Council resolution.

At that time, Biden and others wanted to channel Bush's activities toward getting U.N. support for force.

In November, the Security Council approved a resolution setting a Jan. 15 deadline for Iraq to leave Kuwait and authorizing use of "all possible means" thereafter to get Iraqi forces out. At that time, Senate Minority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.), with Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), developed a draft resolution expressing Congress's support for the U.N. action with the expectation that Bush would call Congress back into special session to act on it.

Bush, however, decided against such a step when House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.) told the president he could not guarantee the House would pass it and House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) agreed.

A fear shared by the White House and congressional leaders is that once a resolution is introduced, it will be hard to limit debate and prevent amendments.

Support for a resolution authorizing the use of force comes mainly from an unusual coalition of the Senate Republican leadership and House Democrats with experience in foreign affairs and national security matters. The House Democrats include Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Dante B. Fascell (Fla.), who has been consulting privately with Bush, and Armed Services Committee Chairman Les Aspin (Wis.). Besides Dole, Lugar and Warner, the Senate Republicans include Minority Whip Alan Simpson (Wyo.) and Robert W. Kasten Jr. (Wis.).