WASHINGTON - Members of Congress seeking to reform the Federal Reserve and make the central bank more accountable to the public opened their drive for legislation yesterday at a hearing of the House Banking Committee.

Leading critics from the Senate and House said the time is ripe for reform and dismissed worries expressed by President Bill Clinton and others that legislation would unsettle financial markets. Instead, they stressed that their proposals are modest and would not interfere with the Fed's ability to conduct monetary policy.

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