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The House Education and Labor Committee on Thursday defeated a proposal that would let a national board recommend new ways to trim or pay for health benefits each year if costs threatened to drive up the federal deficit.

Rep. Tim Roemer, D-Ind., wanted to follow the method Congress uses for base closings. A National Health Board would send up recommendations each year that would automatically take effect in 45 days unless the lawmakers rejected them.Rep. Marge Roukema, R-N.J., said it was a way to enforce fiscal responsibility.

But Rep. William D. Ford, D-Mich., the chairman, called it "cowardly (and) craven." He said it imperiled President Clinton's promise to give Americans health coverage "that cannot be taken away."

Rep. Michael N. Castle, R-Del., said members of Congress are "political animals" who have a tough time saying no to people and groups demanding expanded benefits and spending.

The proposal was voted down, 29-13. Ford's panel is expected to fashion a bill with bigger benefits than Clinton asked for.

The Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee included such a brake on spending in the bill it approved last week.

The House Ways and Means Committee later Thursday was making a second stab at pushing through an amendment to boost subsidies for small businesses while trimming the tobacco tax increase and delaying a new long-term care program for the severely disabled.

"We expect to prevail," Rep. William Jefferson, D-La., said Wednesday night after the Democrats met privately to map strategy.

Clinton was meeting separately with three members of the Senate Finance Committee - Sens. Bill Bradley, D-N.J., Dave Durenberger, R-Minn., and David Boren, D-Okla. Their committee began working behind closed doors Wednesday on insurance reforms.

As if lawmakers weren't having enough trouble hashing out a health reform compromise, they've got Harry and Louise breathing down their necks again.

The Health Insurance Association of America is bringing back the yuppie couple whose homey, anxiety-ridden ads were credited with - or blamed for - deflating public support for Clinton's original health-reform plan.