Only a year after ushering in the 1990s with high hopes for a new era of peace and prosperity, an anxious Congress returns to Capitol Hill Thursday to face the threat of war in the Persian Gulf and recession at home -- with no clear plan of action on either front.

Rarely has the opening of a session been marked by so much uncertainty and apprehension, a dramatic contrast to the opening of last year's session when the joy over waning of the Cold War prompted dreams of a "peace dividend" for long-neglected domestic needs.

In what may be a metaphor for the opening of the 102nd Congress, lawmakers do not even know what they will be doing after the noontime opening ceremonies that culminate in the swearing-in of members who were newly elected or reelected last fall.

In a normal year, Congress would immediately go back home until just before the president's State of the Union address, scheduled this year for Jan. 29. But with Iraq facing a U.N.-ordered deadline for withdrawal from Kuwait by Jan. 15, congressional leaders have put both houses on alert to return on short notice to consider what could amount to an authorization for

war.

Invoking Congress's war-declaring powers under the Constitution, House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) and Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Maine) have said President Bush must seek congressional authorization before ordering offensive military action against Iraq. The White House has suggested that Congress move on its own in accord with the U.N. Security Council resolution.

Foley recently said he thought an authorization of some kind would pass but by a divided vote, which could send a weaker signal than Bush might want. Mitchell has been warning that a U.N.-style open-ended authorization would probably fail.

Since Bush is scheduled to meet with congressional leaders Thursday on the gulf situation, leaders of both parties have been sending go-slow signals to the White House. Senate Minority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) and several Democratic leaders warned over the past week that they believe the country will not support war against Iraq until more efforts are made to reach a peaceful settlement, and House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) said Congress may consider a resolution calling for continued sanctions instead of military action.

Congress's domestic agenda, which was still being assembled by House and Senate leaders before the Christmas and New Year's holidays, presents another reflection of the dramatic turnabout since last year.

Among the top priorities cited by Foley, Mitchell and Gephardt in interviews over the past 10 days were energy policy, which slipped off the congressional screen more than a decade ago, and anti-recession initiatives, which were last seen during tough times in the early 1980s. "Infrastructure," such as highway-building programs that carry the promise of jobs and economic stimulation, has again become a legislative buzz-word.

The federal budget, which dominated so much of the session last year, is expected to pass swiftly this year, so long as it is not blown apart by war in the Persian Gulf. Its contours are already established by the five-year, nearly $500 billion deficit reduction plan approved by the 101st Congress shortly before it adjourned Oct. 28, leaving little spare cash for what is expected to be an intense battle over spending priorities. Bush is scheduled to present his budget Feb. 4, and congressional hearings are expected to begin shortly thereafter.

Even the threat of another

partisan dust-up over taxes may be fading in the form of an unspoken deal under which the Democrats would hold off on plans to push a tax increase on million-dollar incomes if Bush relents on plans to push for a big cut in capital gains taxes.

But the budget agreement spells trouble in dealing with a sick economy.

Political pressure for action

to stimulate the economy is expected to revive the push for a Social Security tax cut that began last year. Other than that, however, the budget's tough fiscal constraints virtually rule out the kind of big stimulative tax cuts and expensive jobs programs that Congress normally employs to ease the pain of recession and hasten recovery. Moreover, any energy initiatives that carry a big price tag, or threaten the stability of an already shaky economy, are likely to be approached with caution, forcing Congress to focus instead on such things as seed money for research.

"We are in a different situation because of the magnitude of the deficit . . . we are in uncharted waters," said Gephardt, who envisions only a modest anti-recession effort, limited largely to programs such as unemployment insurance and job training.

Senior Democrats have been talking for years of launching a major drive for sweeping improvements in health care delivery and plan to do so this year, although they acknowledge that swift action is doubtful. Among the goals are long-term care for the elderly and health coverage for the uninsured.

Democrats can also be expected to put renewed emphasis on education, including passage of Bush's modest package of initiatives that stalled in the final days of last year's session.

Since passage of the landmark clean-air legislation last year, Mitchell plans to give resource-recovery, including national recycling legislation, a top priority

on the environmental front this year.

But as usual, most of the congressional business will be old business: civil rights, campaign finance reform and other endeavors that stalled during the last Congress, ranging from departmental status for the Environmental Protection Agency to unpaid leave for workers with new infants or ill family members.

Along with pushing again for the bill to restore workers' leverage in suits against job discrimination, which Bush vetoed as an invitation to racial quotas, many lawmakers plan to try to block the administration's controversial, scaled-back policy to restrict scholarships for minority students.

The savings and loan debacle will haunt the 102nd Congress just as it did its predecessor.

The case against "the Keating Five" -- senators accused of improperly intervening with federal regulators on behalf a major campaign contributor, thrift executive Charles H. Keating Jr. -- is expected to add to pressure for legislation to overhaul Congress's much-criticized campaign finance laws. But Republicans remain opposed to Democratic proposals for spending limits, and outlook for the measure is in doubt.

The case is also expected to lead to a tightening of the Senate's ethics rules and possible overhaul of its process for handling ethics cases. But chances that the Senate will join the House in banning honoraria from special-interest groups in exchange for a pay raise (which takes effect this month in the House) may have faded. The public is skeptical enough at Congress's motives, and pay raises do not sit well with

people during a recession in any case.

The S&L debacle, coupled with hints of trouble from the banking and insurance industries, will probably spawn a major inquiry into the health of the nation's financial institutions along with action on at least some banking reforms, according to House and Senate leaders. Clean-up efforts are also likely to require a new infusion of cash.

Hearings on the five senators will resume today, and a decision by the Senate ethics committee is considered likely by the end of the month, possibly including a recommendation for sanctions against some of the senators by the full Senate.

Staff writers Tom Kenworthy and John E. Yang contributed to this report.

Here are some of the major issues that the 102nd Congress will face when it convenes Jan. 3:

Persian Gulf: As the Bush administration and Congress anxiously await the Jan. 15 deadline imposed by the United Nations Security Council for Iraq's withdrawal from Kuwait, Congress's role in the war-or-peace debate remains unclear. Democratic leaders are insisting that President Bush seek and obtain congressional authorization for any military assault, but the administration appears wary of a rancorous, protracted debate that would send a message of domestic division to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

Budget and taxes: Weary after its almost year-long battle of the budget last year, Congress hopes to wrap up work on the fiscal 1992 budget as quickly, and painlessly, as possible. Operating under the five-year, nealy $500 billion deficit-reduction plan approved at the end of last year, it will be arguing mainly over priorities within the pay-as-you-go limits of the budget plan. Bush's hopes for a major capital gains tax cut and Democrats' dream of a tax increase for the super-rich could wind up in a draw.

Anti-recession initiatives: As the nation's economy sours and jobless ranks grow, Democratic leaders are beginning to discuss recession-fighting initiatives but find that budget constraints have stripped them of their usual tools, including tax cuts and big jobs programs. Expansion of unemployment insurance and job training are among options under study; there is also new talk of a major "infrastructure" initiative for highways, airports and other such projects, which, coincidentally, could provide jobs during a recession.

Ethics and campaign finance: Televised hearings of the "Keating Five" influence-peddling case in the Senate, scheduled to resume Wednesday, will give new impetus to overhaul of congressional campaign financing laws, which foundered in a partisan deadlock last year. But there is no sign thus far of a break in the impasse over spending limits, which Democrats demand and Republicans reject.

Energy: After more than a decade of neglect, energy policy, including resource development and conservation, will be back on the front burner because of the threat to oil supplies in the Persian Gulf.

Civil rights: Thwarted last year by a veto that they could not override, Democrats will try again this year to reverse or modify recent Supreme Court decisions that make it harder for workers to win job discrimination suits. Also, members of both parties, angered by the administration's handling of last month's dispute over college scholarships for minorities, say they will introduce legislation to protect the stipends.

Health: Democratic leaders plan to begin a major push for new initiatives in health care delivery, including long-term care for the elderly and protection for the uninsured, with some lawmakers exploring Canada's health care system as a possible model for a broader overhaul. But fiscal constraints are a problem, and swift action is not expected.

Financial institutions: Stung by the cost of the savings-and-loan bailout and nervous about the shakiness of the banking and insurance industries, congressional leaders are urging a thorough examination of the nation's financial institutions, and the administration plans to propose major banking reforms. More money will have to be pumped into the thrift cleanup as well.

Miscellaneous: Democrats plan another push for family medical leave legislation. The Senate could be facing a strategic arms reduction (START) treaty if, as expected, one is signed this year by the United States and Soviet Union. A Puerto Rican plebiscite on the island's governmental status may be approved. A recession could give new impetus to the push to cut back Social Security taxes. Another debate is anticipated over re-regulation of the cable television industry. Cabinet status for the Environmental Protection Agency may be considered again.