The Senate ethics committee yesterday delayed a decision on five senators under investigation for their ties to failed savings and loan executive Charles H. Keating Jr., prompting a bitter protest from member Trent Lott (D-Miss.) that the five are being victimized by the panel's "fear of acting."

Describing himself as "furious" at what he said was the committee's inability to decide how to proceed in the case, Lott said he is pessimistic about chances for action before Congress adjourns next week and added, "I feel like I've become an accomplice to a crime."

If he were one of the so-called "Keating Five," said Lott in a rare departure from the usual reticence of members of the Select Committee on Ethics, "I would have gone ballistic. It's just not fair."

The six-member panel is considering a recommendation from its special counsel, Robert S. Bennett, that it take no further action against Sens. John Glenn (D-Ohio) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) but proceed to a full investigation of Sens. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.), Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.) and Donald W. Riegle Jr. (D-Mich.).

After brief meetings the last two days to decide what to do, the committee, distracted by other business and apparently split over how quickly to act, put off a decision until Monday or Tuesday at the earliest, with no firm commitment to act then.

While Bennett saw no reason to proceed against Glenn and McCain, he found critical links between Keating's contributions to the other three senators and their intervention with thrift industry regulators on behalf of Keating's failed Lincoln Savings and Loan of Irvine, Calif. Keating gave $1.3 million to campaigns and causes of the five senators.

Documents being examined by the committee indicate that Cranston, DeConcini and Riegle had more extensive dealings with Keating than they have acknowledged, including a relationship that continued after regulators warned them that Keating faced a criminal probe.

Sources have indicated that there is at least some doubt on the committee about the fate of Riegle, chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, who, like Glenn and McCain, apparently did not continue his intervention with regulators on Keating's behalf after the warning of possible criminal activity.

Collapse of Lincoln is estimated to cost taxpayers about $2 billion. Keating was released on $300,000 bond after a month in jail in California, where he faces charges of fraud in the sale of junk bonds issued by his American Continental Corp., which owned Lincoln.

Lott's angry outburst to two reporters came as pressure for action by the committee mounted among Republicans in the Senate, many of whom are complaining that Democrats on the panel are waiting until after the Nov. 6 congressional elections to act. If Glenn and McCain are dropped from the probe, the bipartisan "Keating Five" would become the all-Democratic "Keating Three," they note.

Sen. Howell T. Heflin (D-Ala.), chairman of the ethics panel, expressed frustration as he left the meeting, but his annoyance was directed at leaks to newspapers of documents that have been compiled in the case.

Asked if the slow pace were attributable to Heflin, who is known for his deliberate way of doing business, Lott said, "I can't say it's one or two {members} or even that it's partisan, quite frankly." Instead, he said, "I'm afraid it's the Senate . . . , which is completely incompetent to let go of anything."

Colleagues have said that Glenn and McCain are intensely frustrated by the delay in committee action. "I've been frustrated for a year," Glenn said yesterday. McCain, who has been more outspoken, said, "Frankly, I'm deeply disappointed they haven't been able to act. I think they owe the American people an explanation."