There is a special desk and telephone reserved for Phineas Indritz, the gnome of the Energy and Commerce Committee, on the third floor of House Annex II, and he is received there with the respect befitting a wise old man who has worked in Congress since the birth of the youngest committee member.

That Indritz retired from government service several years ago and is not on the committee's payroll matters not at all when it comes to his standing and influence. Chairman John D. Dingell loves him like a brother, and it is fair to say that Dingell keeps him around because he needs him: Little Phineas is in many respects the social conscience of Big John.

Every few months, Indritz appears in Dingell's office with a wrong that must be righted, with evidence of an injustice inflicted by corporate America or some agency of the federal bureaucracy. "He's like a kid who comes home every day with a different stray dog or cat and plops it on our doorstep," one committee colleague said. "Sometimes we wish he wouldn't bring them home, but his heart is always in the right place. And usually the things he believes in are things that ought to be done."

All of this must be taken into account when one considers the life and times of H.R. 100. This measure, popularly known as the unisex insurance bill, has sent the insurance industry into a multimillion-dollar lobbying frenzy. It has been embraced by feminist groups as the centerpiece of their campaign for economic equity. And it has trapped Energy and Commerce members in the middle of a ferocious fight that many of them wish would be waged somewhere else.

Indritz, committee aide emeritus, dropped H.R. 100 on the doorstep. He is one of the bill's principal authors. An old civil rights activist and New Deal liberal, Indritz is blessed with talents as extraordinary as his name. For years, his amazing juggling feats with bowling pins have delighted friends and strangers in parks around Capitol Hill.

He drives through town in a fine old convertible, his head barely protruding above the steering wheel. His tweed suit pockets hold a bountiful supply of hard candy, and his scholarly mind retains more obscure facts about constitutional law and legal briefs on discrimination than can be found in the library of the Supreme Court.

It was his lifelong obsession with fighting discrimination that led Indritz several years ago to take hold of a bill prohibiting insurance companies from using race or sex in setting rates for policyholders. Race is not a factor in insurance pricing, at least not an overt factor, but gender discrimination has been one of the fundamental tools of the industry for the last quarter-century.

Men and women pay different premiums for the same pension benefits and life, health and auto insurance, based on actuarial tables that indicate that the sexes have different life expectancies, health care needs and driving habits. What to the insurance industry seemed like statistical common sense appeared to Indritz and others as a blatant violation of this country's civil rights principles. To women's groups it was not just a question of rights, but also of economics--they felt they were financial losers in a discriminatory system.

For Indritz's congressional patron, Dingell, to assume the lead on the issue might seem odd. The Democrat from suburban Detroit had compiled a solid civil rights record during his 28 years in Washington, but his attitude toward women was somewhat Victorian.

While he placed them in influential positions on his committee and congressional district staffs, and took great pride in teaching his daughters that they could do anything boys could do, he never voted for the Equal Rights Amendment and still opposes it. His favorite explanation for his opposition to the ERA is: "It would kick the stools out from under the ladies in the factories."

But in supporting legislative, rather than constitutional, remedies for sex discrimination, Dingell had no hesitation. He put his name at the top of the insurance bill that Indritz wrote for him and made clear that he would stick with it until time and circumstances were right for passage.

The last session of Congress was not the right time. Women's groups were preoccupied with their unsuccessful attempt to ratify the ERA in enough state legislatures before the June, 1982, deadline.

Even if they had taken more interest in the unisex bill, the political composition of the Energy and Commerce Committee was such that it probably would not have passed its first test. One hearing was held on the issue in the commerce, transportation and tourism subcommittee chaired by Democrat James J. Florio of New Jersey, and no votes were taken.

At the beginning of the 98th Congress, circumstances appeared more favorable. The committee was stocked with seven new Democrats with strong equal rights records, and a coalition of women's groups, ranging from the National Organization for Women to the National Federation of Business and Professional Women, concluded that, with the ERA stalled, this was the year to concentrate on economic equity bills, the unisex insurance measure foremost among them.

"After the deadline for ERA expired, this moved to the top of the agenda," said NOW President Judy Goldsmith during a recent interview. "One thing we've made clear is that this is a major issue, and we will make sure it is perceived that way. It is as central to what we're about as ERA itself.

"We had to try to remove the profit motive from sex discrimination. In state after state, we had seen a direct correlation between insurance companies and ERA opponents--Illinois and Florida and other places--so we decided to take the industry on directly, to remove the financial incentive the insurance people would have for killing ERA the next time it comes around.

"They say it was a matter of vengeance on our part and that we were desperate for issues, but that's ridiculous. Heaven knows it would be understandable if our motive was to get even with them, but we are seeking equity, not revenge."

Florio, whose subcommittee has House jurisdiction over most insurance issues, demonstrated his interest by holding a lengthy series of hearings on H.R. 100 in February and March. Members of his panel were alarmed by several points the industry made at those hearings. Women had been receiving smaller monthly pension and annuity benefits than men on the theory that they lived longer and would be receiving the money for more years.

H.R. 100 mandated that women receive the same monthly sums as men, starting immediately. Some insurance companies said that requirement would ruin them financially. Many state and municipal pension systems said it would cost them millions of dollars.

Florio decided to move the bill out of subcommittee on a voice vote and then, before the full committee had to deal with it, try to reach a compromise between the industry and the measure's proponents. The negotiating sessions were held in Florio's subcommittee offices on the first floor of House Annex II.

The industry was represented by lawyers and accountants for several major life insurance companies, including Prudential, New York Life, Metropolitan and Northwestern Mutual. The property and casualty insurance companies did not participate. They opposed the bill, even though it seemed they had the least to lose, and had no desire to compromise. On the proponents' side, all segments of the women's and civil rights coalition took part except NOW, which also saw no need to compromise.

Florio and two subcommittee assistants, Greg Lawler and Grey Staples, were joined by Indritz and Thomas Ryan from the full committee staff, Margaret Durbin of the Republican committee staff and Barbara A. Mikulski, the Democratic representative from Baltimore.

Each of these committee members and staffers played different roles in bringing the antagonists closer to an agreement, but none was more important than Mikulski, who had earned the considerable respect of her male colleagues on Energy and Commerce as a blunt-speaking, practical politician, and of the women's groups as a longstanding feminist.

She is also one of only two women on the 42-member committee and, when picked for it in 1977, she became the first woman ever to serve there.

"There's an old saying that Rayburn [the late Sam Rayburn, former House speaker and committee chairman during the 1930s] put it in his will that it had to remain the old-time, all-male bourbon club that it was in his days," Mikulski said during a recent interview.

"Elizabeth Holtzman tried to get on before me, but couldn't do it. I was the first. I didn't want to be on the pink-collar ghetto committees. Energy and Commerce has the big boys, the chieftains . . . . Of course, the lobbyists have had some trouble dealing with a woman. A lot of the goodies they try to pass around aren't the kind I would be interested in, like 'Let's go to a hunting lodge in the woods,' or 'Let's go golfing' or 'How about four tickets for the wrestling match.' "

For two weeks in late April and early May, the round-robin negotiations went on, and enough progress was made that the groups met through the weekend of May 7-8 with the expectation of presenting a compromise to the full committee the next week. In return for not opposing basic principles of the bill, the major life insurance companies won several concessions, including elimination of retroactive clauses and a delay in when the bill would take effect.

"We had to give those things up, grudgingly, in the interests of gaining a consensus bill," Mikulski said. "Basically, the women's groups gave and the industry took, without even saying thank you."

Then everything fell apart.

Many members of the American Council of Life Insurance were furious that the council's board of directors, led by Robert A. Beck of Prudential, had even been negotiating with H.R. 100's supporters. "We should resist more," said John Gummere, president of Phoenix Mutual Life Insurance Co. of Hartford, a leader of the rank-and-file rebellion. "The majority of the ACLI board is so petrified and paranoid over the possible catastrophic retroactive effect of the bill that they just plain ran scared."

In an unprecedented challenge to ACLI's leadership, Phoenix and several other middle-sized companies demanded a special membership meeting of the trade group. Nearly 500 company representatives flew here May 11 and repudiated the board's compromise position by a 389-to-102 vote.

At about the same time, The Committee for Fair Insurance Rates, chaired by another Phoenix Mutual executive, Barbara Lautzenheiser, began a $900,000 advertising and direct-mail campaign aimed at killing the bill in the House and Senate commerce committees.

The lobbying group hired a high-powered Washington public relations firm, Hannaford Co., to direct the effort. Full-page newspaper advertisements were placed in home districts of 15 Energy and Commerce members, urging constituents to write or call them in opposition to the bill. A half million letters, printed on bogus personal stationery, were sent to constituents, who were urged to send them along to their congressmen.

In many respects, this strategy was modeled after the grass-roots campaign orchestrated by the banking industry earlier this year in its devastatingly effective drive to repeal the interest withholding law. The ads and letters emphasized industry's claim that women, the people H.R. 100 was designed to help, would be its primary victims, paying more than they do now for automobile and life insurance.

The combination of ACLI's about-face and the lobbying blitz infuriated Dingell, who felt compelled to delay consideration of H.R. 100 in the full committee.

"Despite the moderation and the spirit of cooperation shown by the women's organizations and others who support the changes we have sought," Dingell announced before the committee meeting May 12, "none of us could have foreseen the desperate and selfish pressure which would be brought by the insurance industry."

Dingell was not alone in his concern. Moments after he read his statement, three Washington lawyers representing insurance companies scurried down the Rayburn Building hallway swearing and shaking their heads.

"Did you hear about those goddamn ads?" one said.

"Unbelievable," another said.

"Where did they run?" the third asked.

"They did it to Eckart and Richardson and Bryant, and boy are they mad!"

"I couldn't believe it," freshman Democrat John W. Bryant of Dallas said several days later during an interview in his congressional office. "I was sitting in the waiting room out there reading the home-town newspaper that day and noticed the ad.

"Then I looked at my appointments book and realized that the lady who signs the ads [Lautzenheiser] was coming in to talk to me in a few minutes. I asked her if she was in fact the same woman, and she said yes. I told her I took great umbrage at the fact that she would run an ad in the paper where I lived before she had even come by to ask my opinion of the bill."

"I sat down with them on a Tuesday afternoon in the committee lounge," said Democrat Dennis E. Eckart of suburban Cleveland. "We were talking about the problems with retroactivity, which would cost my state about $200 million.

"The governor [Ohio Gov. Richard F. Celeste] supports the bill, but he needs another $200 million bill like he needs a hole in the head. Then on Thursday they ran the ad against me in The Plain Dealer. In effect, they were saying that what they couldn't get by negotiation they would try to get by intimidation.

"The more they try to blackmail us with newspaper ads, the more we will be inclined to close the door on them. I think their campaign is backfiring. I know another member of the committee was going to co-sponsor an amendment that would exempt individual lines of auto, health and life insurance from the bill, but they ran the ad against him! He came up to me and said, 'Now if I vote for the insurance industry, folks will think I sold out.' "

Republican Thomas J. Tauke of Iowa looked at the lobbying campaign from a different perspective:

"They said the same thing about the bankers. When they were fighting withholding, everyone around here was saying, 'Look at all the mistakes they're making, look at how mad everyone is.' But what happened? They won.

"The whole nature of lobbying has changed dramatically since I got here six years ago. Back then if industry wanted something, they'd send their Washington representative to see you. Now they all have district liaisons, and they have these grass-roots letter-writing campaigns. The bankers turned it into an art form, I guess, and now everyone's doing it. The main result is that our mail load has skyrocketed. The biggest question on the mind of the average congressman these days is, 'How in the world do I respond to all this mail?' "

For congressmen undecided on H.R. 100, which is expected to come to a committee vote early this fall, a question of equal magnitude has been "Does this really help women financially or hurt them?" And there are certainly enough wildly disparate statistics swirling around for the members to consider.

Industry fact sheets claim that the bill would cost women drivers under age 25 $700 million each year and that all women would pay $360 million more each year in life insurance premiums. NOW, on the other hand, claims that over the course of a lifetime the average woman pays $15,856 more than if insurance rates were not based on gender.

There are industry studies showing that under unisex the average 23-year-old woman driver in Baltimore would pay $250 more each year. And then there are National Insurance Consumer Organization studies showing that, if the insurance company simply replaced gender with number of miles driven as a means of determining rates, the price difference would show little or no change from what it is now for that same woman.

"In all of insurance, the two most significant factors are age and sex," insurance lobbyist George Bernstein said. "We haven't been able to find a classification to take the place of it, and that is why it is used. This is not some vile scheme by sexist insurance companies to discriminate against women by making them pay lower rates."

"It is an entirely hypothetical proposition," NOW's Goldsmith said, "but, if it could be proven that this bill would hurt women, of course we would oppose it. We would oppose anything that hurts women economically. Industry's argument that women lose is fairly insulting. It suggests we don't understand. It is part of the myth that we suffer from math anxiety."

During Florio's hearings on the bill, Irma Brosseau, director of the National Federation of Business and Professional Women, said she would support the bill even if women had to pay more. "The issue," she said, "is far bigger than who is going to pay the dollars."

But what most of the politicians in the room that day remember far more clearly than Brosseau's answer was the rejoinder from a young camerawoman recording the proceedings for cable television.

"Like hell it is," she blurted.