A politically divided Senate ethics committee yesterday delayed until after the Nov. 6 elections any decision in its probe of five senators' ties to savings and loan executive Charles H. Keating Jr., prompting a charge of "political cowardice" from Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the only Republican in the case.

Instead of exonerating McCain and Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio), as recommended by the committee's special counsel and demanded Monday by many Senate Republicans, the committee scheduled a public hearing, starting Nov. 15, on allegations against all five senators.

In doing so, the committee made no distinction between McCain and Glenn and the other three, Sens. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.), Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.) and Donald W. Riegle Jr. (D-Mich.), who had been targeted for an intensified investigation by special counsel Robert S. Bennett.

The committee's decision to delay any action in the high-profile, politically sensitive case drew an angry protest from McCain, who called the delay "outrageous" and added, "For them to refuse to act or release his {Bennett's} report is, in my view, an act of political cowardice." If the report and recommendations are not made public, "allegations of a coverup are bound to continue," he added.

Glenn, appearing with McCain at a news conference, expressed disappointment and bewilderment over what the committee hoped to accomplish by the hearings but stopped short of the sharp criticism voiced by McCain.

In separate statements, Cranston, DeConcini and Riegle welcomed the committee's decision to hold hearings as an opportunity to prove their innocence in a public forum.

The five senators are under investigation for intervening with federal regulators on behalf of Keating's failing Lincoln Savings and Loan during the mid-1980s, when they received a total of $1.3 million from Keating in contributions to their campaigns and causes. Documents in the case indicate that McCain and Glenn severed connections with Keating after learning in April 1987 that Lincoln's officers would be subject to a criminal investigation, and Riegle reportedly dropped any intervention with regulators on Keating's behalf.

In a resolution released yesterday after its three-hour, closed-door meeting, the Senate Select Committee on Ethics emphasized that it had made no findings in the case, "including no finding that there is reason to believe" that any of the five senators "has engaged in any improper conduct" or violated laws or ethics rules.

"Maintaining and promoting public confidence in the integrity of the Senate and its disciplinary process compels holding a public hearing in this matter," the committee said.

It cited unspecified "evidence, the reliability of which depends on the credibility of witnesses," and said it wanted to hear in public the testimony of the witnesses before making any decisions.

The panel's resolution asserted that it intended to conclude all its work in the case by Dec. 31 "except in extraordinary circumstances," which committee member Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said was probably little more than a "lofty goal."

Committee Chairman Howell T. Heflin (D-Ala.) said he thought the hearings, in which the five senators are to appear jointly, would take at least 10 days.

The committee's action followed by one day a highly unusual outpouring of appeals for immediate action on Bennett's recommendations by McCain, Minority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) and other Republicans. Their public appeals reflected private complaints that the delay was politically motivated by Democrats to keep the lone Republican in the case from being exonerated before the Nov. 6 elections.

The GOP complaints prompted a countercharge by Heflin and Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Maine) that someone, presumably a Republican, was leaking documents harmful to Cranston, DeConcini and Riegle. Unauthorized release of confidential information is a violation of ethics rules.

Heflin also pointedly cited a press release from the lobbying group Common Cause saying that allegations against McCain and Glenn were serious and should not be dropped.

Committee members refused to say whether Monday's testy debate had any effect on their deliberations yesterday. Nor would they say whether votes by the six-member committee, evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, split along party lines. But committee sources indicated before the session that at least two Republican members, vice chairman Warren B. Rudman (N.H.) and Lott, favored prompt action, while most Democrats did not.

Heflin and Rudman said last night that the committee's vote to hold hearings in November was unanimous but declined to elaborate on other votes, which Rudman said covered "every possible combination and permutation" of outcomes.

While it is unprecedented for public hearings to be held at this stage in a Senate ethics proceeding, it is permissible under Senate ethics rules. Hearings usually are held only after the committee finds reason to believe an ethics violation has occurred.

Heflin and Rudman said the committee expects to issue a statement in the next few days dealing with the issue of leaks to newspapers of documents obtained by Bennett and released to the five senators and their lawyers. Committee officials have reportedly been probing the leaks.