The Labor Department's special coal commission, which is to make recommendations this week on how to solve growing financial problems in union health care funds in the coal industry, has received a firsthand lesson in Washington politics.

The 11-member commission, headed by former labor secretary W.J. Usery, was seen by departing Labor Secretary Elizabeth Hanford Dole as a way to resolve once-and-for-all the health care problems of the industry -- union and nonunion -- in a way that could serve as a pattern for other industries.

Commission recommendations were seen as the only way to resolve the issues that triggered a bitter strike between the Pittston Coal Co. and the United Mine Workers of America. The company had pulled out of the health care fund and demanded cost-sharing concessions from the union. Pittston eventually agreed to go back into the fund after Dole agreed to appoint a commission to work out the problems of the entire industry.

But the dream of an industry-wide solution has soured, leaving the commission in disarray, the Labor Department on the defensive and the nation's nonunion coal companies jubilant.

Union miners in the coal industry have been promised lifetime health care benefits from a central industry fund the government helped create in the 1950s. But many coal companies went out of business. Others changed hands in order to get rid of unions. But their retired union employees remained eligible for the benefits and the burden of paying for these so-called orphaned miners, most of them retired, fell on fewer and fewer companies. Many retired miners are being paid by the fund even though the last company they worked for had made no contributions to it.

From the start last March, a majority of the commission members appeared to favor the imposition of a tax -- or a "fee" -- on all coal producers, union and nonunion, to provide for a central fund to finance health care for all miners who had their employers go out from under them.

The approach resembled the one taken to reclaim the land at abandoned mines. All coal companies paid a fee even if they hadn't contributed to the problem.

As the mid-October date for making a recommendation approached, Usery felt he had at least nine of the 11 members behind a coal tax of approximately 20 cents for each manhour worked mining coal.

Then, on Oct. 10, just a week before the commission had planned to issue its report, Usery was called to Dole's office where she told him unequivocally that an industry-wide tax was unacceptable and should not be considered as part of the commission's recommendation.

The next morning, to underscore the point, Deputy Labor Secretary Rod DeArment met with Usery and commission vice chairman Henry Perritt and repeated the message: The commission was not to consider an industry-wide coal tax. When Usery began to argue the point, one of the participants said DeArment cut him off, saying, "the problem is that you don't listen."

The tone of the DeArment meeting was described by a commission member as "very tough, Rod was really brutal with Bill {Usery}."

While the department was warning Usery away from any industry-wide approach, commission members said the department began lobbying a number of commission members to persuade them to drop their support for the tax plan.

A week later, when the commission met to consider its final report, the majority in favor of an industry tax had dropped from nine to seven.

Faced with a dwindling majority in favor of the broad tax approach, the commission asked to extend its reporting deadline to Oct. 29, then until Oct. 31. It is expected to submit a report recommending major cost containment and administrative changes -- changes that have unanimous commission support.

The commission also is expected to outline two approaches to resolving the critical financial problems: the industry-wide tax, which is still favored by a majority on the commission, including the unionized employers and the UMWA, and a tax on coal production limited to those companies that either have collective bargaining agreements with the UMWA or have a provable obligation to orphaned miners.

The experience of the last few weeks has left a number of commission members bitter and privately claiming they had been double-crossed by Dole and DeArment, who, they say, changed the rules of the game after being pressured by the White House. The White House, in turn, was being pressured by nonunion coal companies who had enlisted the aid of a number of senators from Western states to put a stop to the nationwide tax notion.

If Dole, who last week announced she was resigning to become president of the American Red Cross, and the White House didn't want the commission to consider an industry-wide tax, several commission members asked, why didn't they say so at the start rather than waiting until the last minute to rule out the solution a majority favored.

"The White House was definitely a factor," said one commission member who was a leader in the push for the industry-wide tax. "The ground rules got changed."

Dole and DeArment deny any pressure from the White House. Repeating DeArment's lecture to Usery, they insist that the commission members didn't listen to what they were being told at the start of their deliberations.

"They were told they could explore any options," said a ranking department official, "but we told them we would like a consensus, not just on the commission but people in the industry." He also said the commission members had been repeatedly warned to get out and sell the idea of an industry tax if that's the approach they wanted to take.

Dole insists there was no White House pressure on her to divert the tax option. "The case has not been made to me that we need a national coal tax to fix this problem," Dole said. "I don't think the case has been made."

Dole said she was partial to the idea of a limited tax, but Labor Department sources said they weren't quite sure what would happen next now that Dole was leaving. "It's a big question of what we do from here," a department official said.