The attorney named Thursday to investigate Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt has a conflict of interest because she helped defend a Democratic senator in the Keating Five scandal, Republicans charged.

A three-judge court on Thursday appointed Carol Elder Bruce, 48, who specializes in white-collar crime, as independent counsel to investigate whether Babbitt, a Democrat, lied to Congress in testimony about an Indian casino application.Babbitt, whose political career is on the line, pledged his cooperation and expressed confidence that he would be vindicated.

"We're relieved that the process is moving and relieved that she is said to be a straight-shooter," said Mike Gauldin, Babbitt's communications director. "Now she needs a chance to do her job."

But the Republican National Committee immediately pounced on the appointment, saying Bruce "has a conflict of interest which jeopardizes the independence and credibility of the Babbitt investigation."

The Republicans said Bruce worked under Charles Ruff, now White House counsel, in defending Sen. John Glenn, D-Ohio, in the Keating Five scandal in 1990.

Glenn and four other senators, including Arizonans John McCain and Dennis DeConcini, were accused of intervening with federal regulators in a banking case on behalf of Charles H. Keating Jr., a major contributor to their campaigns.

Party Chairman Jim Nicholson said Bruce's association with Ruff made her an inappropriate choice to lead the probe of Babbitt. The allegations against Babbitt, Nicholson said, "directly involve (former) White House deputy chief of staff Harold Ickes and go to the very heart of the White House, which is now represented by her former supervisor, Charles Ruff."

The Republicans also noted that Bruce served on the independent counsel investigation during 1987-88 of Edwin Meese, who was attorney general in the Reagan administration. The party's prepared statement suggested that Bruce's work probing Meese, a Republican, was further proof that she wasn't impartial.