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Democrats in Congress are taking a harder line on health reform, insisting on universal coverage and voting the party line. House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt charged Friday the Republican strategy now was to "stop any bill."

Vice President Al Gore predicted on CBS that the Clinton administration would end up getting "80 to 90 percent" of its original proposal, starting with universal coverage.Gephardt, at a news conference, said, "It's clearer and clearer to me every day that the agenda on the other side is to not have a bill. The Republican effort seems to be to stop any bill."

He said simply passing insurance reforms - as many Republicans favor - without guaranteeing coverage would just "increase premiums for all American and they get nothing in return."

In the House Ways and Means Committee on Thursday, Republicans lost a string of 24-14 party-line votes as the panel continued crafting a health reform bill.

"The Democrats are now the ones walking in political lockstep," said Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Calif.

The Democrats, who earlier had barely strung together 20 votes to preserve mandatory employer contributions to health insurance, said they formed a united front after learning that House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich had instructed Republicans not to try to improve a Democratic bill.

Thomas had hoped to embarrass some Democrats into jumping ship on a proposal to trim a 60-cent increase in cigarette taxes to 45 cents.

But the Democrats toed the line set by acting chairman Sam Gibbons, D-Fla. They rammed through a series of amendments to sweeten the subsidies for small business, accept a smaller increase in the tobacco tax and - to make up for those losses - delay the start of long-term care for the severely disabled.

"They thought they had us snookered," said Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash. "Mr. Gingrich became our whip today."