The senior Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee broke through a long hearing full of dry questions yesterday and attacked Attorney General-designate Edwin Meese III, saying his conduct was ethical but "beneath the office" to which he aspired.

"Why do you stick to the technicalities?" Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) demanded after Meese defended his participation in discussions about a federal job for his accountant, John R. McKean, who arranged two loans totaling $60,000 for him.

"In the meeting when McKean's name came up, you say it was not a formal meeting," Biden said. "Who the hell cares whether it was a formal meeting? Who the hell cares whether he was a trustee of the loan or the person who loaned it?"

Meese had said he did not believe he had a conflict of interest because the discussions did not occur during a formal meeting and because McKean had arranged for the loans but was not the source of the money.

Biden also castigated Meese for his unwillingness to say he had received a favor from Thomas J. Barrack Jr. when Barrack agreed to find a buyer for Meese's home in La Mesa, Calif. Barrack also received a federal job later.

"Even if you didn't know anything other than that your wife thought Barrack wore a halo, which I can understand . . . . why can't you say, 'You know, this guy really did me a big favor?' "

"It's an attitude," Biden said. "Why is it so difficult for you to go back and say, 'In hindsight, it was wrong for me to do such and such'?"

"I have said that," Meese responded.

The White House counselor, who previously had been calm and self-possessed, seemed shaken by Biden's outburst. He said that in his 25 years in public life he had met "the high standards" Biden described.

"If I had a chance to do over what we talked about, I would do some things over," Meese said. "But you can't relive history. My decisions were made on the highest standards I had at the time."

The attack on Meese previously was led by Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) and had been only halfheartedly followed by the six other Democrats on the 17-member Judiciary panel. Few of the Republican members were present for yesterday's second day of confirmation hearings, leaving the Democrats to grill Meese.

The effect of Biden's probing was softened by committee Chairman Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), who told Meese: "If you were not a man of the right character, you'd be a multimillionaire. Instead, you can't make the payments on your house."

What impact Biden's attack would have on Democratic senators' views on the nomination was not immediately clear; thus far, only Metzenbaum has said he will vote against confirming Meese. Even before Biden spoke, however, their questions had become more pointed.

In a related development, Sen. William Proxmire (D-Wis.), who is not on the committee, called for a freeze on the nomination pending further inquiry into whether Meese had a role in a Justice Department decision to halt an investigation of General Dynamics Corp., a major defense contractor. The investigation was reopened last year.

In a letter Proxmire received this week, Meese wrote that he met briefly with two top officers of the firm in 1981 and 1983. But he denied suggesting to the Justice Department that it end its investigation of the firm.

"You will note," Meese wrote, "that neither I nor my staff ever had any contact with the Department of Justice regarding any matter concerning General Dynamics, other than recent routine briefings for my current confirmation hearings."

Proxmire said he was troubled by Meese's willingness to contact Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger to arrange a meeting between Weinberger and General Dynamics officials to discuss a conflict over construction of the Trident nuclear submarine.

Meese promised to call Weinberger after an Aug. 7, 1981, meeting with General Dynamics officials, Behavior of Meese 'Beneath the Office,' Sen. Biden Declares By Loretta Tofani Washington Post Staff Writer

The senior Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee broke through a long hearing full of dry questions yesterday and attacked Attorney General-designate Edwin Meese III, saying his conduct was ethical but "beneath the office" to which he aspired.

"Why do you stick to the technicalities?" Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) demanded after Meese defended his participation in discussions about a federal job for his accountant, John R. McKean, who arranged two loans totaling $60,000 for him.

"In the meeting when McKean's name came up, you say it was not a formal meeting," Biden said. "Who the hell cares whether it was a formal meeting? Who the hell cares whether he was a trustee of the loan or the person who loaned it?"

Meese had said he did not believe he had a conflict of interest because the discussions did not occur during a formal meeting and because McKean had arranged for the loans but was not the source of the money.

Biden also castigated Meese for his unwillingness to say he had received a favor from Thomas J. Barrack Jr. when Barrack agreed to find a buyer for Meese's home in La Mesa, Calif. Barrack also received a federal job later.

"Even if you didn't know anything other than that your wife thought Barrack wore a halo, which I can understand . . . . why can't you say, 'You know, this guy really did me a big favor?' "

"It's an attitude," Biden said. "Why is it so difficult for you to go back and say, 'In hindsight, it was wrong for me to do such and such'?"

"I have said that," Meese responded.

The White House counselor, who previously had been calm and self-possessed, seemed shaken by Biden's outburst. He said that in his 25 years in public life he had met "the high standards" Biden described.

"If I had a chance to do over what we talked about, I would do some things over," Meese said. "But you can't relive history. My decisions were made on the highest standards I had at the time."

The attack on Meese previously was led by Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) and had been only halfheartedly followed by the six other Democrats on the 17-member Judiciary panel. Few of the Republican members were present for yesterday's second day of confirmation hearings, leaving the Democrats to grill Meese.

The effect of Biden's probing was softened by committee Chairman Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), who told Meese: "If you were not a man of the right character, you'd be a multimillionaire. Instead, you can't make the payments on your house."

What impact Biden's attack would have on Democratic senators' views on the nomination was not immediately clear; thus far, only Metzenbaum has said he will vote against confirming Meese. Even before Biden spoke, however, their questions had become more pointed.

In a related development, Sen. William Proxmire (D-Wis.), who is not on the committee, called for a freeze on the nomination pending further inquiry into whether Meese had a role in a Justice Department decision to halt an investigation of General Dynamics Corp., a major defense contractor. The investigation was reopened last year.

In a letter Proxmire received this week, Meese wrote that he met briefly with two top officers of the firm in 1981 and 1983. But he denied suggesting to the Justice Department that it end its investigation of the firm.

"You will note," Meese wrote, "that neither I nor my staff ever had any contact with the Department of Justice regarding any matter concerning General Dynamics, other than recent routine briefings for my current confirmation hearings."

Proxmire said he was troubled by Meese's willingness to contact Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger to arrange a meeting between Weinberger and General Dynamics officials to discuss a conflict over construction of the Trident nuclear submarine.

Meese promised to call Weinberger after an Aug. 7, 1981, meeting with General Dynamics officials, according to a summary of the meetings that Meese attached to his letter.

"Why did the company feel it needed to go through Ed Meese at the White House?" Proxmire asked. "Was there a hope on the part of General Dynamics that, when Ed Meese called Secretary Weinberger, it would be viewed as a not-so-subtle sign of White House favoritism?"

In his testimony yesterday, Meese frequently quoted a report last September by independent counsel Jacob A. Stein, who was appointed to investigate Meese's financial dealings and who found no evidence of criminal behavior. Meese said that report and other investigations had showed that he had "acted properly and ethically."

Stein did not comment on Meese's ethical behavior.

During yesterday's morning session, Biden established the framework for many of his fellow Democrats' later questions when he asked Meese what he would do if, as attorney general, he learned that a Justice Department attorney had made a decision in an antitrust case involving a company in which the attorney had a financial interest.

"I would have to get the facts," Meese said.

Biden shot back: "I would fire him."

Meese said he wouldn't argue with Biden's decision but first he would get the facts.

In response to questions probing his sensitivity to ethical concerns, Meese's answers raised new questions. He told Sen. Howell Heflin (D-Ala.) that he decided not to accept $10,000 in moving expenses in 1981 from the President's Transition Trust when he learned it is illegal to accept payment for moving expenses. Instead, Meese said, he asked the treasurer of the trust to change the notation on the $10,000 check to "consulting fees."

Heflin asked Meese how he calculated how much he was owed for consulting. Meese said the total was less than he would have received in legal fees for the amount of time he spent.

When Heflin suggested that Meese should have returned the moving-expenses check and withdrawn the correct amount in consulting fees, Meese said, "Perhaps today I would go through that rigamarole to avoid even Common Cause's objections."

Common Cause, a citizens lobby, objects to Meese's nomination. Representatives of the group are to testify at the hearings today.

In response to Meese's remarks that he is more sensitive to potential ethical problems as a result of his experiences in Washington, Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) asked him to describe the difference between official life here and in California.

Meese began describing Washington's "more burdensome" financial-disclosure forms, but was interrupted.

"The forms aren't the question, Mr. Meese," Baucus said. "When you were working for then-Gov. Reagan in California, did you use the same standards as in Washington?"

"Yes, Senator," Meese said. "The standards in California were certainly as high as in Washington."