How much longer must the Tower hearings drag on?

For two weeks, the Senate Armed Services Committee has been delving into the qualifications of former Texas Sen. John Tower to serve as secretary of defense.Now the word out of Washington is that another two weeks must pass before the Senate will be prepared to vote on the Tower nomination.

There is a point beyond which an effort to find the facts turns into an exercise in foot-dragging, and the Senate is in danger of passing it.

The case against Tower boils down to allegations that he drinks too much, chases women and is too close to the defense industry to deal with it objectively.

The persistence of the allegations despite repeated FBI investigations that found no "smoking gun" lends credence to suspicions that the accusations are inspired more by politics than by anything else.

Unless Tower's private life opens him to extortion, it has a limited bearing on his qualifications for office. And if there were room for extortion, it likely would have taken place long ago when Tower was serving as chairman of the very committee that is now grilling him. But so far no one is suggesting actual extortion, only the theoretical potential for it.

Since leaving the Senate in 1984, Tower has made huge sums of money acting as a consultant for a long list of defense contractors. Incredibly, those sniffing at Tower on this score include some senators who have accepted campaign contributions from the same defense firms. If their objectivity and integrity have not been impaired, why should his have been?

Meanwhile, the longer the hearings drag on, the more paralyzed the Pentagon becomes without a secretary of defense. The leadership gap is delaying key policy decisions on everything from new weapons programs and where to cut the defense budget to a review of the nation's strategic arms policy. This review has long been sought by congressional leaders as a prerequisite to future summit meetings and new bargaining on strategic arms limitation. Also on hold are careers; at least 12 posts for assistant secretaries of defense can't be filled until the top man at the Pentagon is in place.

The Senate should get off dead center and accept or reject the Tower nomination.