WASHINGTON — Republicans on the Senate Commerce Committee refused Friday to hold a separate investigation of the Challenger disaster, and Democrats immediately accused them of "stonewalling."
Democratic Sens. Ernest F. Hollings of South Carolina, Donald W. Riegle Jr. of Michigan and Albert Gore of Tennessee asked for the hearings and special investigation, apart from the blue-ribbon presidential commission now looking into the Jan. 28 shuttle explosion.
The Commerce Committee, of which Hollings is the ranking Democrat, is monitoring the presidential commission's investigation. Riegle and Gore sit on the panel's subcommittee on science, technology and space, which oversees NASA.
Committee Chairman John C. Danforth (R-Mo.), and subcommittee chief Slade Gorton (R-Wash.), rejected the Democrats' request, contending that it would get in the way of the work of the presidential panel, led by former Secretary of State William Rogers.
"We think that the investigation of the disaster should be conducted in a very systematic and professional way," Danforth said. "We believe that is best accomplished by the Rogers commission being permitted to go ahead with its work without interference on the part of a congressional committee."
The Republicans said they told the Democrats that if it appears to them that the Rogers panel is missing a key point, they would have hearings.
Hollings, apart from Riegle and Gore, said he wants a panel investigation and the three asked for a hearing next week with acting NASA administrator William Graham and three NASA officials involved in the decision to launch the Challenger despite engineering arguments about the safety of crucial sealing rings on the shuttle's solid rocket boosters.
Hollings, critical of the commission for not doing more early investigative work, said, "We're off on the wrong start with closed (commission) hearings and no investigators. This time what we seem to be doing is stonewalling for the Rogers commission."
Gorton said, "We don't agree the commission is stonewalling."