Washington — Common Cause, the self-styled citizen's lobby, faces a steep uphill trek this week as it begins an all-out effort to block Edwin Meese III from becoming the next United States attorney general.
The close presidential confidant has good reason to believe that when Congress returns next month, he will be swiftly confirmed in a second try to become the nation's chief lawyer.
Once the expected nomination reaches Congress, the Senate Judiciary Committee leadership is planning a one-day hearing to examine the controversial Mr. Meese. The White House counselor has been cleared of the criminal misconduct charges that halted his nomination earlier this year.
Duke Short, chief investigator for the Senate committee, said this week that a 400-page report issued by an independent counsel in September had ''answered all the questions'' and that he expected a single day of questioning.
''The votes are there with a pretty good majority'' to confirm Meese, Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana said this week.
A Democrat close to the Judiciary Committee agreed that Meese's nomination had become almost a fait accompli.
Although the counsel's report detailed Meese failures to disclose conflicts of interest involving loans and questionable personal finances, the Democratic aide said that senators have grown to view him as a hapless bungler, ''like old Uncle Ferdcq who's really a sweet guy but always gets egg on his tie.''
Moreover, Congress almost never turns down a president's choice for his Cabinet if the president pushes the nomination to a vote. The last such rejection was in 1959.
Despite the unfavorable odds, Common Cause has launched a campaign to demonstrate that while the lengthy report on Meese found no criminal misconduct, it revealed his ''utter insensitivity to ethical standards.'' The group's chairman, Archibald Cox, said this week, ''It's not enough for an attorney general to have a sign that says, 'I am not a crook.' ''
Mr. Cox, who served as the first special prosecutor in the Watergate scandal, said of the Meese nomination, ''This is a dangerous downhill run'' for ethics in government. Common Cause, which generally takes liberal stands, has opposed several of Meese's political views. But the group's leaders said their opposition is based solely on ethical grounds and the details reported in the Meese inquiry, headed by independent counsel Jacob Stein.
Although the Stein report found no indictable offense, it carefully skirted the question of whether Meese was fit to be attorney general, and it raised subjects that Common Cause and some Democratic critics will be probing next year. Among them:
* Personal loans that Meese secured from people who later obtained jobs in the Reagan administration. John R. McKean, an accountant acting as an agent for private investors, secured a total of $60,000 in loans for Meese in 1981.
In October 1981, Mr. McKean was named to fill an unexpired term on the US Postal Board of Governors, and in 1983 he was appointed for a full term. Meese served on a four-member committee that passed on the nominations. He actively supported McKean in 1981 without recusing himself on the basis of a possible conflict of interest.
In a similar case, Thomas Barrack, a lawyer and real estate developer, played a key role in the sale of the Meese California home, which was creating a serious financial problem for Meese. Arranging the sale eventually cost Mr. Barrack $83,000, according to the Stein report.
Soon after the $300,000 California house sold, Barrack came to Washington to seek a high governmental job and eventually obtained one outside the White House.
Meese testified that he could not recall discussing the job search with Barrack or playing a role in it. When Barrack later switched to a sub-Cabinet position, Meese joined in approving it.
The Stein report found no evidence of criminal dealings in the loans. In its review of the cases, Common Cause agrees, while charging that Meese created the ''appearance of impropriety.''
* Special treatment for Meese in the Army Reserve. Reserve officials promoted him to a full colonel, which involved a waiver of usual procedures.
Despite a warning from the secretary of the Army that the action would give the ''appearance of preferential treatment,'' Meese decided to stay out of the matter.
The promotion went forward, and a subsequent Army inspector-general report later concluded that it was improper.
* Incorrect financial disclosures and failure to recall conversations and events involving conflicts of interest.
The Stein report lists both lapses in disclosure due and in memory, which Common Cause concludes ''confirm the charge of insensitivity'' to ethical standards.