Clinton attacks AFL-CIO



WASHINGTON (AP)—Using harsh language against an old ally, President Clinton said organized labor is strong-arming lawmakers with ‘‘roughshod, musclebound tactics’‘ to scuttle the North American Free Trade Agreement.

A top AFL-CIO official called the assertion ‘‘a cheap shot’‘ and ‘‘simply not true.’‘

In a rare and sweeping Sunday morning television interview, Clinton also insisted that North Korea cannot be allowed to develop a nuclear bomb.

‘‘We have to be firm about it,’‘ he said, but refused to discuss the possibility of a pre-emptive strike against the communist nation’s nuclear facilities.

Clinton, appearing for an hour on NBC’s ‘‘Meet the Press,’‘ reiterated his support for Russian President Boris Yeltsin and exiled Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. And he said U.S. troops in Somalia would renew efforts to clear supply lines for humanitarian operations.

The president also issued a sharp defense of his first year in office, saying historians will ‘‘be hard-pressed to find many first years of presidencies that match ours.’‘

In a personal moment, the former Arkansas governor said he still finds living in the White House ‘‘pretty confining.’‘

‘‘I don’t know whether it’s the finest public housing in America or the crown jewel of the prison system,’‘ he joked.

Clinton said he now understands how a president can become ‘‘out of touch and maybe out of harmony with the American people.’‘

Aides said his attack on labor was not scripted, but the remarks were astonishing for a Democratic president, even on a free-trade issue that has spawned an odd menagerie of political coalitions.

‘‘At least for the undecided Democrats, our big problem is the raw muscle, the sort of naked pressure that the labor forces have put on,’‘ Clinton said.

He said unions are privately threatening to cut financial support and field opponents if lawmakers support the free-trade deal with Mexico and Canada.

Interviewed on ‘‘CNN Late Edition,’‘ AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Thomas Donahue said his ‘‘gut response’‘ when he heard Clinton’s characterization ‘‘was to be angry. I thought it was a cheap shot. No need for it. It is simply not true.’‘

‘‘It’s perfectly true that some of our affiliates have taken the position that they will not support people who cause job loss to their members,’‘ the labor federation’s No. 2 official added.

Donahue said ‘‘I think we’ll get over’‘ the rift with Clinton concerning NAFTA. ‘‘We’ve tried to make it very clear that this is one issue on which we disagree with Bill Clinton,’‘ he said.

During a commercial break in the show, senior White House adviser David Gergen slipped Clinton a piece of paper telling him that wire service stories were trumpeting his criticism of labor. Clinton called the situation an example of how a president’s words can be twisted.

‘‘Those guys are my friends,’‘ he said of the unions. ‘‘I just don’t agree with them on NAFTA.’‘

AFL-CIO spokesman Rex Hardesty said the president ‘‘was right … when he said this was virtually the only issue is which he disagrees with the AFL-CIO.’‘

The free-trade deal, which comes to a vote Nov. 17, is about 30 votes short of the majority needed to pass it in the House, Clinton said. ‘‘I think we’ll make it, however,’‘ he said.

Opponents, most visibly former presidential candidate Ross Perot, believe the pact would cost thousands of jobs. Clinton said Vice President Al Gore will fare well in his Tuesday night debate with Perot, although the Texas billionaire ‘‘is the master of the one-liner and the emotional retort.’‘

Clinton said Perot had ‘‘kept things stirred up. I think that’s what he likes to do.’‘

He also said support was lagging because business leaders who back the treaty had not rallied their employees.

Turning to foreign affairs, Clinton said he was going to stick with his foreign policy team, ‘‘as long as we’re working together.’‘ Critics of his policies abroad have called for the dismissal or resignation of Defense Secretary Les Aspin and Secretary of State Warren Christopher.

He called the possibility of North Korea’s possessing a nuclear bomb ‘‘a very grave issue for the United States,’‘ and said an invasion of South Korea would be considered an attack on the United States.

Now that the United States is pushing a political resolution in Somalia, Clinton said U.S. troops will once again patrol Somali streets for humanitarian relief operations.

‘‘Our young soldiers cannot be expected to just hunker down and stay behind walls,’‘ he said. ‘‘It almost puts them at greater risk.’‘

Without mentioning Somalia and Bosnia by name, he urged the international community to take a more active role in brokering political resolutions within countries. ‘‘Our ability to stop people within national boundaries from killing each other is somewhat limited,’‘ Clinton said.

The president declined direct comment on Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s decision to skip presidential elections in December in favor of serving out a single term.

‘‘As long as he is supporting reform, I believe we should support him,’‘ Clinton said. But he also noted approvingly that parliamentary elections in December would establish another ‘‘legitimate democratic source of power’‘ in Russia.

Discounting a campaign to discredit Aristide as mentally unstable, Clinton said the ousted Haitian leader has followed through on everything the United States has asked—including naming businessman Robert Malval prime minister.