When a Senate committee rejected his nominee for the Justice Department's No. 3 job, Attorney General Edwin Meese III insisted on carrying the battle to the Senate floor. And when that effort fizzled, Meese came up with a new plan to elevate William Bradford Reynolds.

Meese now says he is giving Reynolds "new responsibilities" beyond his role as head of the department's Civil Rights Division, which he held onto when the Senate blocked his promotion. Meese said Reynolds will be "part of our senior management team here" and "will have a number of assignments" that will place him on a par with the deputy attorney general, solicitor general and director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

No one has ever accused Meese of giving up easily. In his first six months as attorney general, he has generated almost as much controversy as during the year-long debate over his fitness for the job. Meese, 54, is far more aggressive than his low-key predecessor, William French Smith, and appears more determined to press the conservative "social agenda" on issues like prayer in public schools and abortion. His chief spokesman, Terry H. Eastland, calls Meese "the most outspoken attorney general in 40 years." Meese's detractors call him one of the most political and ideological men to head the Justice Department.

"We have had political attorneys general before," Ralph G. Neas, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, said. "I am not sure we've had an attorney general like this one, who seems to display so little respect for the law. He is much more aggressive, much more confrontational, in pursuit of the radical right's agenda."

Meese disputed the notion that he has politicized the job.

"My first six months in office would tend to mark me as a more legally-oriented attorney general," he said in an interview. He said he has been "devoted to legal issues rather than political issues, and I've specifically avoided doing anything that would give the impression of political involvement.

"One of the things I did on the day that I was nominated was to give up all political activity whatsoever . . . . I don't attend fund-raisers or political events," Meese said.

A former prosecutor in Alameda County, Calif., Meese has given top priority to combating narcotics, terrorism, organized crime and white-collar crime. But even on criminal justice issues, where he feels most at home, Meese has stirred considerable debate.

He has been widely criticized for allowing E.F. Hutton & Co. to plead guilty to 2,000 felony counts in a huge check-kiting scheme without seeking charges against any of its officials. And he has yet to explain why his deputies dropped an investigation of Teamsters union President Jackie Presser -- the only major labor leader to endorse President Reagan -- or respond to reports that the FBI authorized Presser to pay "ghost employes" on the union payroll.

Meese's influence extends well beyond the Justice Department. He reviews most domestic issues as head of the Cabinet's Domestic Policy Council and attends meetings of the National Security Council. The former White House counselor remains close to the president. When Meese speaks out on abortion, religion or affirmative action, few doubt that he is expressing President Reagan's views.

Conservative activists say that they have found a more receptive audience at the Justice Department since Meese took over Feb. 25.

"We think of Meese as more take-charge on our issues," Jon Pascale of the Free Congress Foundation said. "We worked hard for his nomination. He's done a real good job so far."

Many Americans recall Meese as a nominee under fire, the subject of an independent counsel's probe of such issues as his failure to disclose a $15,000 no-interest loan from a friend who later received a government job. The inquiry last year found no evidence that Meese had violated any laws, a fact he used to good effect in fighting successfully for Senate confirmation.

Despite his combative image, in person Meese seems genial and easygoing. He appears more comfortable in the job than did Smith, a reserved corporate lawyer, and Meese has held nearly as many news conferences in six months as Smith did in four years. At these sessions, Meese displays his mastery of the art of answering reporters' sensitive questions without saying much.

At the same time, Meese sometimes appears politically naive. He continued to push Reynolds' nomination to be associate attorney general long after it was doomed and opened old wounds by calling the nation's civil rights groups, who opposed Reynolds, a "very pernicious lobby."

Meese also may have misjudged the potential reaction when he urged Reagan to sign a draft executive order that would abolish numerical goals that some government contractors are required to meet in hiring minorities and women. The proposal triggered loud protests when a copy was leaked two weeks ago.

"Anybody can have a goal or an objective," Meese said. "The problem has been that too often numerical goals have been subverted into discriminatory quotas, and I think that's the vice . . . . I think the president's policies, with which I know of no disagreement within the administration, is that numerical quotas are wrong and that they are a means of discrimination which is both illegal and immoral."

Perhaps no single action better typifies Meese's two-fisted style than the Justice Department's recent friend-of-the-court brief urging the Supreme Court to overturn its 1973 decision legalizing abortion.

Smith had stopped short of asking the justices to reverse their 7-to-2 ruling in Roe v. Wade, asking instead that the states be given greater leeway to regulate abortion. But the new brief calls the 1973 decision "inherently unworkable" and "so far flawed that this court should overrule it."

Critics called the Meese move particularly bold because the court does not need to address the basic right to abortion in order to decide the pending case, which involves two state abortion laws.

"I know of no precedent for the Justice Department, unsolicited by the parties in the case, to come in and ask for a constitutional right to be overturned," Leslie Harris of the American Civil Liberties Union said. "It's just not how business is done in front of the Supreme Court. To come in and urge a 360-degree reversal of a Supreme Court decision is . . . a cheap political way to get some positive publicity."

But Meese responded that "you couldn't really argue these cases without showing what's at the root of the problems before the court, which was the fact that Roe v. Wade was wrong when you decided it."

Meese said he views that case as a states' rights issue. "To me, Roe v. Wade is less an abortion case -- that happens to be the substantive topic of the litigation -- but I think the more fundamental principle that's involved there is the separation of powers, separation between judicial and legislative powers and the concept of federalism," he said.

Meese ruffled more legal feathers last month when he ripped into a series of Supreme Court rulings on voluntary school prayer, aid to parochial schools and states' rights. Accusing the justices of "a bewildering Catch-22 logic" and "a mistaken understanding of constitutional theory," Meese said the Founding Fathers would have found the court's views on religion "bizarre."

Meese also challenged the "doctrine of incorporation," under which the courts have held for the last 60 years that most provisions of the Bill of Rights apply to the states. Meese said the doctrine -- which has provided the basis for much modern litigation involving civil liberties, privacy and religion -- rests on "an intellectually shaky foundation."

Meese said in the interview that he was merely warning the court to be cautious in extending its jurisdiction further into realms he thinks should be the purview of the states. He said his remarks were intended as a scholarly analysis of the court's direction.

But the attorney general made clear that he will not be shy about seeking cases in which to press his view of these sensitive issues. He said the department will argue in an upcoming Supreme Court case that religious groups should not be denied equal access to public facilities.

"They've gotten themselves involved in a kind of morass, where there seems to be . . . a lack of clear-cut understanding of where the lines are," Meese said. " . . . I think there is a confusion on the part of the court between freedom of religion and hostility toward religion."

Such rhetorical assaults underscore the importance that Meese places on the courts as a vehicle for conservative reform. By 1988 Reagan will have selected more than half the nation's federal judges, and Meese is serving as chief architect in Reagan's effort to reshape the judiciary.

"The radical right -- and I include Ed Meese in that category -- acknowledges that they're not going to be able to implement their agenda legislatively," said Neas of the leadership conference. "They know they're going to have to pack the judiciary with like-minded individuals . . . young, white male ideologues who could be in there for three or four decades."

Meese fueled these concerns in February when he said he would seek to appoint judges who believe in "the sanctity of human life." His plan to install Herbert E. Ellingwood, chairman of the Merit Systems Protection Board, as head of the office that screens judicial candidates has also drawn fire because of Ellingwood's outspoken brand of fundamentalist Christian activism.

But Meese said in the interview that "we don't have any issue-by-issue ideological test" for judicial candidates. He said he is looking for experience, integrity and a philosophy of judicial restraint.

For a former prosecutor who once enjoyed riding around with the Oakland police, no issue offers more tangible rewards than the war on crime. It gives Meese the chance to be a crusader in an area less divisive than abortion or civil rights.

"He understands state and local law enforcement," James W. Sterling, acting executive director of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, said. He said Meese's background "allows him to have contacts in our world in a way that William French Smith was unable to do."

But the two most publicized criminal cases that Meese inherited have kept him on the defensive. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) said the handling of the E.F. Hutton case and the Presser investigation "left the American public with the impression that individuals engaged in white-collar crime have nothing to worry about as long as they have friends in the administration."

Meese argued that the Justice Department blazed trails in bringing charges against Hutton but that it could not prosecute any corporate officers, because of the need for plea bargains and the uncertainty of securing convictions. He said he cannot discuss the Presser probe because he disqualified himself from the case to avoid the appearance of political influence.

Meese says that he hopes to regain the initiative in the coming days by unveiling a major legislative package aimed at white-collar crime and military procurement fraud