WASHINGTON -- Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, is leading a GOP chorus condemning Attorney General Janet Reno for again refusing to appoint an independent counsel to investigate possible campaign abuses by President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore.

Reno on Monday told a three-judge panel she decided not to seek a counsel to investigate a portion of alleged abuses: using $46 million of ads paid for by the Democratic Party possibly to circumvent 1996 spending limits on the Clinton campaign itself.Reno told the panel that she found no willful intent to violate the law -- needed for prosecution -- because Clinton and Gore had been advised by lawyers that their actions were legal. She made no determination on whether such ads were legal.

But Hatch, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, complained Reno is not looking at overall alleged campaign abuses as a package, and is instead dividing them in ways to avoid triggering an independent counsel.

"Janet Reno has sliced this broad scandal into narrower issues so that common threads, patterns and facts are not considered when weighing each decision whether to seek an independent counsel," Hatch said.

"Reno's task force has never conducted an inquiry or investigation into the entire campaign finance scandal in order to determine whether there exists information which would warrant the appointment of an independent counsel," Hatch added.

He also said that Charles LaBella, who has headed a Justice Department task force on campaign finances, said during a briefing that "this endless narrowing of allegations has had the 'desired result' of keeping the matter out of the reach of an independent counsel."

Previously, Reno refused to seek a counsel to investigate White House fund-raising calls by Clinton and Gore in the White House; refused again last month to seek a counsel to investigate possible abuses by Gore; and last week requested more time to decide whether to seek a counsel to investigate whether former Deputy Chief of Staff Harold Ickes lied to a Senate panel about possible abuses.

Hatch said, "The rule of law continues to suffer under this administration. I intend to renew my efforts to examine her handling of this and to compel the appointment of someone who is independent and objective to investigate this matter."

Hatch wasn't the only Republican howling about Reno's decision.

Senate Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., who oversaw lengthy hearings on campaign financing, said Reno's decision "is probably the final nail in the coffin of the independent counsel law" -- and that Republicans will likely take away the attorney general's oversight of whether to seek counsels.

House Government Reform and Oversight Committee Chairman Dan Burton, R-Ind., said, "it is sad we have an attorney general who refuses to follow the law. More importantly, I find it deplorable she seems to have placed the president above the law."

Meanwhile, the White House said Reno's decision was a vindication. "As we have said all along, the president and the Clinton-Gore campaign complied with the spirit and letter of the law," said White House spokeswoman Amy Weiss in a statement.

Despite current criticism, Reno has sought several independent counsels during her tenure to investigate high members of the administration. The most noteworthy is Kenneth Starr, appointed to investigate the Whitewater land deal -- which also led to uncovering Clinton's affair with then-intern Monica Lewinsky.

Other counsels have been appointed to investigate Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt; Labor Secretary Alexis Herman; former Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy; former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros; former Commerce Secretary Ron Brown; and Eli Segal, a 1992 Clinton campaign aide.

The latest controversy was over "issue advocacy ads" by political parties. Parties are allowed to pay for ads that do not advocate a particular candidate and appeal to general issues instead.

The Federal Election Commission staff has alleged that both Democrats and Republicans violated that in 1996 and that parties ran ads essentially advocating their nominees.