WASHINGTON -- A small but influential band of congressional Democrats opened the door yesterday to a full-blown inquiry into allegations that the 1980 Reagan-Bush campaign managed to delay the release of 52 American hostages for political gain.
After an hour and a half behind closed doors with Gary Sick, the former Carter administration official who spent two years investigating tales of a secret deal between the Iranian government and senior Reagan campaign officials, several of the lawmakers suggested that a formal probe might be launched. If that happens, it would raise the possibility of a politically charged and divisive congressional investigation as the 1992 presidential campaign season gets under way.
"There's a real chance that as events unfold, the American people are going to get a cold shower of hard political reality," said Representative Robert G. Torricelli, D-N.J. "The questions are not going away. . . . I think it is very difficult to conceive that there will be sufficient confidence in the end of this affair if there is not an investigation."
Publicly, at least, other members in attendance were not willing to go quite so far.
"We have reached no conclusions about what Mr. Sick said, and certainly no conclusions about what follows," said Representative Lee H. Hamilton, D-Ind. "What the results of these discussions will be, I can't say."
Similarly, Representative Dante B. Fascell, D-Fla., called Mr. Sick's account "a fascinating story, an interesting story, a sensitive story." But, Mr. Fascell went on to say, "there are admittedly, even by his own statements, a lot of gaps. It certainly needs further discussion whether or not the evidence is there to tie everything together."
Nevertheless, these Democrats made it clear that they would soon demand to hear more. "We have to know a lot more than we know right now," said Mr. Fascell. Mr. Torricelli added that the Bush administration ought to come forward with whatever information it can, "because at some point the truth is going to be known, and it is not a picture that is going to make any of us feel good."
Among the participants in yesterday's meeting, Representative Ted Weiss, D-N.Y., joined Mr. Torricelli in calling for a formal inquiry and sent a letter announcing his position to Mr. Fascell. House Speaker Thomas S. Foley, D-Wash., meanwhile, has said that he asked unnamed House members to explore, informally, the question of whether a full public investigation ought to be launched.
The Iranian government sequestered the hostages at the U.S. Embassy compound in Tehran until the day of President Ronald Reagan's inauguration.
Though rumors of a deal between the Iranians and Reagan campaign officials circulated for a decade, Mr. Sick is credited with having documented them with new thoroughness. Several Republican lawmakers are said to have nervously inquired at the White House about the veracity of Mr. Sick's account, dreading the prospect of Iran-contra-style hearings that could erode President Bush's phenomenally high approval ratings.
Privately and publicly, the White House claims that the reports are without foundation. "Our position has always been that it never happened," said White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater. "There's no need to investigate something that never happened."
At the same time, other Reagan associates have gone on the offensive, attacking Mr. Sick's research and his motives.
"These guys -- Gary Sick and others -- are skating on very thin ice," said Richard V. Allen, Mr. Reagan's first national security adviser, on NBC's "Today" show. "They're trying to impugn the character, among others, of President Bush. And I think it's time to stand up and fight."
Many Democrats, however, are almost as wary of a hearing as their Republican colleagues. One staffer said that a few Democrats "smelled blood." Other Democrats, however, fear a potential public backlash, should an investigation -- especially one that exonerates Mr. Bush -- appear politically motivated.