As chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee and the Appropriations subcommittee on foreign operations, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) planned hearings over the past week dealing with trade, Soviet use of U.S. farm credits and revamping of foreign aid programs.

One by one, as the Persian Gulf War unfolded, Leahy cancelled, postponed or scaled back the hearings. "Everyone would probably have come, but no one would be paying attention . . . they would have been there in body only," said Leahy, acknowledging that he, too, has had trouble focusing on issues that, in normal times, would dominate his day.

In the case of foreign aid, Leahy noted, there was another problem: the war is likely to affect priorities in ways that cannot be fully known until it ends.

On both ends of the Capitol, from hearing rooms to the floors of both houses, lawmakers are struggling like everyone else to go about their normal business, which, in the case of Congress, means laying the groundwork for a new legislative year. And, like everyone else, the lawmakers are finding it difficult to free themselves from the grip of minute-by-minute news reports from the gulf.

"I don't think anyone's focused on anything but the war," said Rep. Mike Synar (D-Okla.). "The usual kinds of meetings to develop consensus on issues like health care are all being put on the back burner. . . . It's not going to be business as usual for a long time."

"There isn't any question that every office is distracted as a result of the pressure of a war environment," said Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.), a member of the House Republican leadership. "It's sapping people of energy and it's going to have a significant impact on the efficiency and speed of the {legislative} process."

Moreover, the Persian Gulf hostilities, coupled with the Soviet Union's crackdown on its rebellious Baltic republics, are likely to create a ripple effect of near tidal proportions that will affect everything from budget priorities to trade and arms control, said Sen. William S. Cohen (R-Maine). "We're living in a world of future shock," he said.

Even when lawmakers can shake themselves free to discuss issues unrelated to the war, they find themselves pulled back to it. At a modestly attended news conference on reintroduction of a voter registration bill that died last year, Sen. Wendell H. Ford (D-Ky.) immediately evoked the gulf crisis and said, "While voter apathy may be tolerated in relatively good times, lack of citizen participation in times of peril and uncertainty strikes at the very heart of our democratic process."

For symbolic as well as substantive reasons, the first bills to move through Congress have dealt with military and veterans' issues, including tax deadline relief for U.S. troops in Operation Desert Storm and inflation adjustments in disabled veterans' benefits.

But House and Senate leaders insist that the war will not disrupt the legislative agenda for the year, noting that Congress normally would be in recess during January and returned early this year only to consider an authorization for war that was approved Jan. 12.

"I don't think it will have a major effect on domestic agenda items. . . . I don't imagine that there will be any excessive delay on these matters," House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) said Tuesday.

Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Maine) compiled a list of committee and leadership meetings this week that included campaign finance reform, environmental protection, financial institution regulation and anti-crime bills as well as military-related issues. The session's early opening actually enabled Congress to get a head start on all fronts, Mitchell added. But he noted that war, against a backdrop of recession, means "additional uncertainty in a situation that is inherently uncertain."

"Life goes on, the process goes on, but it's been disrupted, no question about it," said Sen. Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.), who has been working with Mitchell to assemble the Senate Democrats' agenda for the year.

Nor is there any escape when lawmakers leave Capitol Hill. When he was in Vermont last weekend, Leahy said he ran into questions about the war at every stop: at a barbershop, over a meat counter and at a gasoline pump. Finally, Leahy and his son sought escape in target-shooting. But they broke it off, he said, to talk about the war.