The prospect that the "Keating Five" could become the "Keating Three" has moved some Senate Republicans to push for quick action by the Senate Select Committee on Ethics investigating the involvement of five senators with indicted savings and loan executive Charles H. Keating Jr., according to congressional sources.
The move for quick exoneration of two of the investigation subjects -- Sens. John Glenn (D-Ohio) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) -- follows the Sept. 10 recommendation by special committee counsel Robert S. Bennett that the panel take no action against them.
Bennett also recommended that the committee proceed with investigation of the three others, Sens. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.), Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.) and Donald W. Riegle Jr. (D-Mich.).
If the committee agrees, and acts before Congress adjourns later this month, the bipartisan five would become the all-Democratic three -- just in time for Nov. 6 congressional elections.
In a rare public statement last week, the committee said it would "meet to decide how it will proceed" after it had met privately with each of the five. Glenn appeared before the panel on Wednesday, and McCain on Thursday.
The three others are scheduled next week.
While none of the five is up for reelection this fall, the thrift scandal is a major issue in many of this year's congressional races, and Glenn, McCain and Cranston must face voters again in two years.
Within the committee and the Senate, some Republicans have contended it is unfair to senators to be left under a cloud if it is clear they are going to be exonerated. The six-member committee, divided between Democrats and Republicans, is understood to be split about what to do and when to do it, although not entirely along party lines.
Some Republicans have suggested that ethics committee Chairman Howell T. Heflin (D-Ala.) is delaying action until after the elections to keep the case from becoming an exclusively Democratic affair should McCain be cleared.
They note that Heflin is up for reelection this year, although his race does not appear close. Heflin declined comment on the charge, but other Democrats scoffed at it, noting that Heflin, a former judge, is known more for his slow motion and caution than for partisanship.
Sources said Senate Minority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) recently sent a letter to Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Maine) expressing hope that action was not being held up for political reasons.
At the conclusion of proceedings against Sen. Dave Durenberger (R-Minn.) in July, several Republicans, including committee member Trent Lott (Miss.), complained about what they saw as the slow pace of the panel's deliberations. Durenberger was denounced by the Senate for financial misconduct.
In his report on the Keating Five, Bennett indicated there was credible evidence linking Keating's contributions to the campaigns and causes of Cranston, DeConcini and Riegle to their intervention on Keating's behalf with federal thrift-industry regulators.
Bennett found no such linkage in the cases of Glenn and McCain, the sources added.
Keating headed American Continental Corp., which owned Lincoln Savings and Loan of Irvine, Calif., a failed thrift institution the government took over in April 1989 at an estimated cost of $2 billion to taxpayers.
He also contributed $1.3 million to the campaigns and causes of the five senators before and after their intercession on his behalf. In addition to owning the California-based Lincoln thrift, Continental is chartered in Ohio and headquartered in Phoenix and owns a large hotel in Michigan.
The committee has met three times with Bennett to discuss his 10-month inquiry and 350-page report, along with a hip-high stack of exhibits he accumulated during the probe. Because it could not reach an immediate conclusion, the committee deferred decision on any of the cases until all five senators could be heard, individually and privately, to answer questions and make their case for dismissal.
Emerging last week from the sealed rooms in the Capitol and Hart Office Building that the ethics panel shares with committees dealing with national security matters, members declined to discuss their meetings with Glenn and McCain. After his 2 1/2-hour session Wednesday, Glenn smiled and said, "I survived." McCain, after a meeting Thursday that lasted nearly three hours, said he expected to be cleared of any wrongdoing but then hastened to add, "I expected all along to be totally exonerated."
The committee is in the preliminary phase of its three-step procedure. If it decides to continue its probe of any of the senators, it could go to the second investigative stage or leapfrog to the final phase, which includes a public trial-like hearing.
Under normal committee procedures, going to the second or third stage of an ethics proceeding involves a conclusion by the committee that there is substantial and credible evidence that a violation of Senate ethics rules was committed.