Normally these would be the most stressful of times for Richard G. Darman, the president's budget director.

Only a few days before making public the projections on which the U.S. government will operate for the next critical year, Darman's Office of Management and Budget would be besieged with aggrieved government agency heads and outraged constituencies. Cabinet officers would be calling to lobby their cases to save a favored program.

Yet for the moment, none of that is true. "We've had fewer leaks than I've been accustomed to," Darman said last week, "and the intensity of appeals is probably lower. . . . Some Cabinet officers . . . must have felt, 'My gosh, I can't go burden the president' " with pleas for more funds.

For now there is a cease-fire in the clamorous battle of the budget. But this will soon change, and with a vengeance, as costs and consequences of the shooting war inevitably are pitted against needs at home.

The domestic constituency groups find little of the comfort Darman professes to see in the situation. In their world, needs will not wait. "We all fear that domestic programs will probably end up suffering," said Moises Loza, executive director of the Housing Assistance Council.

His view is echoed by leaders of health, education and social service lobbies. For them, funds were already critically short, and the war has made their hopes only last spring of a "peace dividend" seem like a cruel joke.

In the end, Darman will be the one who has to figure out how to pay the bills -- and pay them in the face of already depressed economic conditions. These days, Darman's large office in the Executive Office Building complex next to the White House seems an eye in the midst of the storm. The only real hint of the extraordinary strains on the government and political system comes from the television flickering soundlessly in the background.

Darman himself reflects no sense of tension or stress from critical decisions made and those yet to come. "I am a workaholic anyway," he said, "and I can't add any more hours to my day."

This is a war, he said, that America literally cannot afford to lose -- or even delay in winning. "What is unusual about this situation," he said, "is you have the possibility of extremely high deficits combined with a financial system under very significant stress combined with the potential for significant international destabilization. All three at once. One would be a fool not to take the confluence of those three as something extraordinarily serious to have to deal with."

Under the best of circumstances, fighting a major war and also attending to America's unmet needs impose severe pressures on the governmental system. And this winter, Congress and President Bush will begin their long dialogue under something approaching the worst of circumstances: the recession and wave of corporate bankruptcies; the deficit exceeding $300 billion; the rising, unfunded costs of the savings and loan cleanup and the shaky national banking system; and the strain on local and state treasuries.

The costs of combat cause the national cash register, in Darman's phrase, "to just ring, ring, ring." But Darman said the administration has taken that into account and had calculated the costs of current military operations.

"Presumably it goes at this level of intensity for at most two or three weeks," Darman said. "Maybe it goes four weeks. It doesn't go for a year; it doesn't go for 10 years. . . . So that hunk of expense can be calculated, planned for and handled."

Darman insists that budgetary considerations play a minor part in administration decision-making on the Persian Gulf. But viewed in stark economic terms, the resort to force makes good sense, he said.

The sooner hostilities cease, the quicker the recession will end. It was the economic uncertainty over the gulf that was the principal cause of the downturn. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's threat to Saudi Arabia jeopardized the world's supplies of oil, "and oil is tied to everything else in financial markets and they're tied to the banking system and the economy," Darman said.

If the war goes well, he said, "it will help take a tremendous amount of pressure off the banking system, or at least the availability of credit, and the monetary system and the ability to continue on a path to try to get the deficit back under control."

Thus, again, looms the crucial element of time -- and a quick resolution of war so America can turn its attention to its problems at home. Darman knows that battle will be joined and so do the increasingly pessimistic leaders of groups that want more attention -- and money -- for domestic concerns.

James S. Todd, executive vice president of the American Medical Association, typically expresses "great concern" that the war "is going to put increased pressure on entitlements" and "damage patient care" under Medicare and other government medical programs.

Despite such fears, the groups feel that in the midst of a war they have to suspend some of their usual pressure tactics. "We're not asking for a lot of new things," said James Martin, chief lobbyist for the National Governors Association. With the war on, adds Faye Wattleton, president of Planned Parenthood, "there's a sense we should not get involved in domestic squabbles. The budget battle really has not picked up yet."

And for many of them another fear looms on the horizon: the prospect that military victory over Iraq could well fuel demands for higher spending on more high-tech Pentagon projects. However, Darman discounts that. "We're not changing our view about a long-term decline in defense {spending}, notwithstanding this crisis," he said.

And in words that may offer some comfort to the skeptical groups, Darman points to problems in education, health and "urban distress areas," and asks, "Is there lots that America has to do? Yes. That was true before this conflict."

Staff researcher Bruce Brown contributed to this report.