WASHINGTON (AP) _ Turning the closed-door investigation of Sen. Bob Packwood into an inflamed public debate, Ethics Committee members are using the Senate floor to battle over whether to hold public hearings in the case.

Partisan arguments on the hearings issue keep moving to the Senate floor, breaking the committee tradition of fighting out its differences in private.

The panel of three Republicans and three Democrats is normally so secretive that meetings are not announced in advance.

The latest, but certainly not the last, public word came Wednesday from committee Vice Chairman Richard Bryan, of Nevada, who _ like many Democrats _ favors hearings in the 2 1/2-year-old case of sexual and official misconduct.

He accused the Republican chairman of the Ethics Committee of stalling on the hearings issue, saying: ``There is simply no reason for the committee to delay further.''

Chairman Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., an opponent of hearings like many Republicans, is expected to respond with his own floor speech soon. But McConnell already weighed in with a speech to the Senate last week.

Then, he threatened public hearings on the conduct of Democrats if a California senator forced a Senate vote to require public testimony on Packwood, R-Ore.

The first lawmaker to force the issue before the Senate was Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who said that if the Ethics Committee failed to vote for Packwood hearings, she would introduce legislation to require them.

Wednesday, Boxer said she would not back down. ``My position remains the same. If the Ethics Committee fails to vote for public hearings or meet, I will go forward with my resolution for public hearings,'' she said in a written statement.

The Senate panel last met July 12. McConnell has refused to call another session, saying he was imposing a ``cooling-off'' period that would last at least until Boxer backed down.

``I know of no reason the Ethics Committee has not met, nor any reason why the committee has not voted on holding public hearings,'' said Bryan in his speech.

He also wrote McConnell that it was ``urgently important for the credibility of the committee and the Senate'' that a meeting be held on the hearings issue Thursday or Friday.

The Ethics Committee has found ``substantial credible evidence'' that Packwood made unwanted sexual advances to 17 women in 18 instances from 1969 to 1990, altered his personal diaries when he learned the committee might subpoena them for the investigation and tried to solicit a job for his wife from lobbyists and businessmen with legislative interests while the couple was obtaining a divorce. Any increase in Mrs. Packwood's income could have lowered the senator's alimony payments.

Republicans have said they might amend any legislation by Boxer to also include hearings on Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass. and Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D.

The references were to the 1969 drowning of a woman in a car driven by Kennedy and allegations that Daschle tried to eliminate a government charter inspection program at the request of a friend's air charter company. The Kennedy incident happened the same year as the first sexual misconduct allegation against Packwood.