WASHINGTON — In an unusually sharp critique of one of his party's most influential constituencies, President Clinton on Sunday blamed the "roughshod, muscle-bound tactics" of organized labor for the difficulty he faces in winning ratification of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Acknowledging that he is about 30 votes short of having enough support in the House of Representatives to ratify the trade pact, Clinton said: "At least for the undecided Democrats, our big problem is the raw muscle, the sort of naked pressure" applied by labor.
Clinton's NAFTA assessment came during a televised interview in which he defended his health care reform initiative and foreign policy record, warned that race relations continue to deteriorate in America's cities and held himself responsible for not doing enough to explain his priorities and accomplishments to the nation.
"I was absolutely certain a year ago that I could pursue this aggressive agenda of change and that every step along the way I'd be able to tell the American people what I was doing and convince them that we were going right," Clinton said in a one-hour interview on NBC's "Meet the Press."
"We're pursuing it, we're making in a way a little more progress than I thought we would, but there's a big gap between what we've done and what I've been able to tell the people about," the President said. "I've got to do a better job."
Clinton predicted that Congress would "absolutely" adopt a health care reform package by next year.
Just days after the White House conceded that 30% of Americans would pay more for health care under his plan than they currently do, Clinton sought to blunt the impact of the prediction. He warned that everyone would be paying more if the system is not reformed because of the relentless upward spiral of health costs.
"If you look at the experience of the last 12 years . . . and then you think about what it will be like five years from now, 100% of the American people will pay more five years from now than the rate of inflation if we don't do something," he said.
The President sought to deflect criticism of his handling of foreign and defense policy, saying that "these are the problems that nobody's figured out how to resolve." He said his Administration has "inherited . . . very difficult problems in Bosnia, Somalia and Haiti."
Clinton's pointed criticism of organized labor represents a new tack in the President's uphill campaign on behalf of NAFTA, which would remove trade barriers between the United States, Mexico and Canada over the next 15 years.
In focusing on the unions, whose political strength in presidential races has been declining along with their membership, Clinton is turning on a constituency that was among the most important in his successful political alliance a year ago.
But with only 10 days left until the House votes on legislation that would implement NAFTA, supporters are "30 votes short of having explicit, express commitments" from the 218 members needed to win, Clinton conceded.
With Republicans generally favoring the pact but lacking sufficient numbers to put it over the top, the White House is turning its attention to members of the President's own party, who have been more reluctant to support the deal.
Clinton attributed NAFTA's problems primarily to "the vociferous, organized opposition of most of the unions telling these (House) members in private they'll never give them any money again, they'll get them opponents in the primary, you know, the real roughshod muscle-bound tactics."
The President's criticism of the labor unions, which have mounted an aggressive campaign to defeat NAFTA, was so pointed that he later remarked that counselor David Gergen had expressed fears off-camera that Clinton was courting negative news headlines.
"Those guys are my friends," Clinton said, apparently trying to patch things up with the unions even before the interview program ended. "I just don't agree with them on NAFTA."
Thomas Donahue, secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO, called Clinton's remarks Sunday a "cheap shot" and part of a "desperate effort to capture votes and win passage" of NAFTA.
The President also criticized the business community for failing to rally employees and "rank-and-file people" to express their support of NAFTA.
Supporters argue that by increasing commerce among the three nations, the agreement would promote jobs in the United States as manufacturers and service firms increase their business dealings with Mexico. Critics, including such major unions as the auto workers, Teamsters, machinists and garment workers, fear that U.S. laborers will suffer through loss of jobs or lower wages as they are forced to compete with Mexican workers.
Clinton held out the possibility, under questioning, that he would pull the United States out of the agreement if it was creating a net loss of U.S. jobs, dragging down wages or creating undue hardship in one sector of the economy.