Cleveland Mayor Michael R. White (D), one of the newest members of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, came to Washington for his first mid-winter meeting hoping to join his colleagues in arguing on behalf of the dollars needed to support an urban domestic agenda.

Almost the first thing he heard as he sat in on the first session yesterday was a dire fiscal warning from House Budget Committee Chairman Leon E. Panetta (D-Calif.) that the Persian Gulf War is costing $500 million a day. Along with two dozen other mayors listening to Panetta, White felt his jaw tighten.

"I'm not frustrated; I'm angry," he said afterward. "I'm the mayor of one of the largest cities in the country while we have an administration that is completely oblivious to the problems of human beings in this country.

"I sit here like everyone else, watching CNN, watching a half-billion dollar a day investment in Iraq and Kuwait, and I can't get a half-million increase in investment in Cleveland or any other city," he said.

White's unhappiness was not atypical among the mayors meeting here as they begin to brace for the potential budget fallout from the war. Other municipal leaders who have watched their portion of the federal budget steadily shrink during the last decade appeared torn between their support for President Bush's gulf policy and their continuing concerns about drug abuse, homelessness and the recession.

"We have two wars going on, one in the Persian Gulf and one right here in our cities," said Philadelphia Mayor W. Wilson Goode (D), who has lately been struggling to bail his city out of one of the nation's worst municipal fiscal crises.

San Francisco Mayor Art Agnos (D), who has made these lobbying forays to Washington before, offered perhaps the most cynical assessment. If the mayors had been the ones to suggest going to war with Iraq, he said, war would never have been declared.

"Then the important questions would have been asked that are posed when we propose programs on AIDS, drugs and homelessness," he said. "And that is, how do you pay for it?"

The mayors' plaint is a familiar one. With city revenues shrinking and popular tolerance for new taxes nonexistent, urban leaders fear that there are no pockets deep enough to pay for the problems they face.

Boston Mayor Raymond L. Flynn (D), who heads the mayors' task force on hunger and homelessness, said he worries that the war will only exacerbate many of the problems cities are ill-equipped to handle now, including the number of homeless veterans.

"Over the past week, we have seen what extraordinary feats can be accomplished militarily when the federal government focuses talent and resources on a particular challenge," he said. "Let us resolve now that America's urban agenda is next in line."

More than one chief executive worried aloud that a nationwide recession poses as much of a threat to their home towns as does the war.

"Cities have said all along, we'll take our fair share of the cuts," said Indianapolis Mayor William H. Hudnut III (R). "But just don't pick on us. Now is the time for equitable sacrifice."

Most mayors hedge when asked whether they would support a "war tax" to pay for the Persian Gulf effort. Chicago Mayor Richard B. Daley (D), who is facing a primary election next month, waxed loquacious on questions about urban issues until he was asked about the possibility of raising taxes to pay for the war. "I'm not getting into that," he said shortly.

Charlotte, N.C., Mayor Sue Myrick (R) said it is "lousy timing" to propose a war tax now, and speculated that cities will be forced increasingly to search their own limited coffers for local needs.

"I would be willing to pay a war tax personally . . . ," said Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. (D) of Charleston, S.C. "But we cannot be blind to the very ominous economic cloud the recession has created."

The mayors received some reassurance from Housing and Urban Development Secretary Jack Kemp, who predicted that the domestic budget will not be pared to pay for the war. "We can afford both international security and Social Security," he told reporters.

Moments later, however, one mayor who stood nearby listening to Kemp offered a more pessimistic view. "I don't think there's any question that domestic issues, by virtue of the {nation's} fiscal condition, are going to be affected," said Springfield, Mass., Mayor Mary Hurley (D). "The question is how much and how long."