WASHINGTON -- While Senate Democrats say Edwin Meese's confirmation as attorney general is in 'a great deal of trouble,' President Reagan shows no signs of abandoning the nomination of his longtime aide.
The Justice Department Monday opened a preliminary inquiry into Meese's receipt of a $15,000 interest-free loan -- a probe that prompted the White House counselor to obtain a delay in his Senate confirmation hearing.
However, Meese's aide, James Jenkins, said Meese has no intention of asking Reagan to withdraw the nomination as the nation's top law enforcement officer.
White House spokesman Larry Speakes said, 'The president stands solidly behind the nominee and wishes him confirmed. He's hopeful that he will be confirmed.'
But Sen. Dennis DeConcini, D-Ariz., a moderate Democratic member of the Republican-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee, said Meese has been 'tainted' by suggestions of impropriety.
Although DeConcini said he has not decided how to vote, he urged Reagan to withdraw the nomination.
'The president would be better off if he solicited someone who was not shrouded in controversy,' DeConcini said.
Senate Democratic leader Robert Byrd of West Virginia announced Monday that he has made up his mind to vote against Meese.
'I don't know how much, but he's in trouble,' Byrd said.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., joined his colleagues in predicting a tough fight for Meese. He said the nomination is in a 'great deal of trouble' and said, 'It would take a miracle to improve the situation.'
As support for Meese split along party lines, Judiciary Committee Chairman Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., told a news conference, 'Up to now, there's been nothing I've come across that would damage Mr. Meese.
'If President Reagan nominated the man, then he must be qualified,' Thurmond said.
The FBI, as part of the Justice Department, is looking at the circumstances surrounding the $15,000 loan to Meese's wife, Ursula, from Edwin Thomas, who subseqently received a federal post. Thomas' wife, Gretchen, also got a government job.
Under the law, the attorney general must seek appointment of a special prosecutor within 90 days if he determines the allegations are credible.
Questions about the transaction were raised last week after Meese revealed he inadvertently failed to list the loan on his financial disclosure statement. He filed an amended form Monday.
The loan was the latest controversy over Meese's finances. Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee also wanted to know whether four others received government jobs in exchange for helping Meese out of financial difficulties.
Justice Department spokesman Thomas DeCair declined to comment on whether the probe will look at Meese's other financial dealings.
Sens. Joseph Biden, D-Del., and Howard Metzenbaum, D-Ohio, the leading critic of the nomination, called on the Justice Department to broaden the inquiry of Meese's finances.
Metzenbaum said it 'would be totally inadequate' for Justice investigators to ignore the financial help Meese received from four men who received government jobs, a controversial Army promotion and receipt in 1980 of Carter campaign memos.
Metzenbaum, speaking on ABC's Nightline, predicted failure for the Meese nomination.
'I doubt very much that Mr. Meese will be confirmed,' he said. 'I doubt very much that the Senate Judiciary Committee will ever be reconvened.'