Sensing increased public anger over the mounting costs of the savings and loan cleanup, more than 150 members of the House and Senate this week endorsed demands for stepped-up investigations of wrongdoing in the thrift industry -- including the role of Congress itself.

The political potency of the S&L issue was shown when a freshman congressman, Rep. Peter P. Smith (R-Vt.), delivered a one-minute floor speech on Wednesday calling for an independent counsel "to investigate the involvement of government officials in the savings and loan scandal."

What might have been a windmill-tilting foray by a first-term representative unexpectedly tapped into an apparent vein of frustration over the rising cost of the thrift cleanup.

Within 48 hours after Smith suggested the idea, 118 members of the House -- two-thirds of them Republicans -- had signed on as cosponsors of his resolution calling for an independent counsel to investigate not only wrongdoing within the S&Ls but also the actions of regulators, the White House and Congress.

That was the launching of a bipartisan bandwagon of demands to do something about the savings and loan scandal.

Another 35 House members -- mostly Democrats -- joined an effort on Thursday by Rep. Stephen L. Neal (D-N.C.) to require the Justice Department to devote more effort to investigating and prosecuting S&L crimes and misconduct.

Simultaneously, on the Senate side of Capitol Hill, four Democrats -- Bob Graham of Florida, Tim Wirth of Colorado, and Alan J. Dixon and Paul Simon of Illinois -- introduced a bill to create a financial services crime division in the Justice Department to prosecute savings and loan crimes.

Nor was the reaction to the S&L issue limited to Congress. Virginia Gov. Douglas Wilder (D), on his first political tour of the Northeast, won prolonged applause in New Hampshire on Wednesday when he urged creation of a "national commission of inquiry" to investigate what he called "the worst scandal in U.S. history."

What set off so many politicians -- and so many of their constituents -- at once was the Bush administration's disclosure last month that the cost of the S&L cleanup would be at least $132 billion, and with other potential expenses and interest might hit $500 billion. At the top end of the estimates, that works out to $2,000 for every American.

As Wilder put it, "pain wrenches at our sense of justice when we think of the investments which could have been made" with that much money, "the hospitals we could have built; the highways and airports we could have built; the toxic landfills we could have cleaned up; the elderly we could have cared for; the small businesses we could have stimulated."

Outrage over the cost of the cleanup is particularly acute in the Northeast, Smith said, "because none of us participated in this problem. Our S&Ls obeyed the law."

"I have been telling people for a year we had to bite the bullet and pay the bill," he said, "but when {Treasury Secretary} Nick Brady came up and said we were going over $100 billion, I knew that biting the bullet had to mean more than paying the bill."

Smith said that as a new member of Congress it may have been easier for him -- or someone like Wilder -- to propose investigating the part played by lawmakers in thrift issues that date back to the last days of the Carter administration.

"No sitting member of Congress or former member of Congress should be able to escape scrutiny," Smith said. "The same goes for the regulatory and administrative side."

Smith's resolution for creating an independent counsel in effect is a petition to the House Judiciary Committee, which under the law must initiate action by making a request to the U.S. attorney general. Cosponsors of the resolution include 10 of the 35 Judiciary Committee members, ranging from liberal Democrat Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts to conservative Republican Rep. Henry J. Hyde of Illinois.

Both the House and Senate measures are meant to prod the Justice Department to throw additional resources into investigating the 21,000 cases of possible financial fraud that have been referred for criminal action by bank and thrift regulators.

The Senate bill would set up a special unit in the Justice Department to investigate crimes involving banks, thrifts and other financial institutions and would create regional financial services strike forces like those targeted against drugs and organized crime.

The House bill -- cosponsored by a number of Banking Committee leaders -- would require Justice and the FBI to begin investigating at least half the 21,000 referrals by the end of this year and to get all the cases moving by the end of next year.

"The public is justifiably outraged about all this. They're asking us why don't you prosecute these guys," Neal said. "All of us are frustrated. We want to get something done. The public wants to get something done. We're reflecting that."