Labor Ally Swats White House

jkosterl@njdc.com

A powerful labor ally of the Clinton administration Thursday harshly criticized the president's unfolding second-term positions.

"We're concerned with the direction of the president and the administration in a number of areas," Gerald McEntee, president of the 1.3 million-member American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, told reporters at a briefing on the union's legislative conference, which begins here Monday.

McEntee, who heads the nation's second largest union and who was the first labor leader to endorse Clinton in 1992, complained the administration appears willing to give too much ground to Republicans in budget negotiations on cuts in Medicare, Medicaid and estate and capital gains taxes. "I thought we won the election," said McEntee, whose union was a top Democratic National Committee contributor during last year's campaign.

McEntee's comments came as a letter asking Clinton not to accept an increase in defense spending at the expense of domestic programs has garnered the signatures of about 100 House Democrats.

It would be better to push the budget debate into the 1998 election year than to cave on Medicare, McEntee said, adding that labor is poised to fight any perceived capitulation. McEntee also complained that the administration had not delivered on promises to retrofit last year's welfare reform law, a major bread and butter concern for AFSCME members. He noted that the administration has not detailed its proposed job creation initiative nor extended labor law protections to welfare-to-work participants. The union also wants guarantees that welfare programs will not be contracted out to private sector firms, he said, and is prepared to launch a court challenge if they are.

Meanwhile, McEntee professed that any campaign finance reform measure curtailing contributions to candidates or parties, although unlikely to pass, would work to labor's advantage.

Unlike most interest groups, he noted, unions could still spend substantial funds to "educate" their own members.

McEntee's comments occasionally appeared to up the ante in the widely anticipated contest between Vice President Gore and House Minority Leader Gephardt for the 2000 Democratic presidential nomination.

Gephardt, he noted at one point, was prepared to offer his own job creation legislation. Gore, he commented later, has delivered some of the "best pro-worker speeches of anyone, but the proof's in the pudding."

Both Gephardt and Gore are slated to address the union's convention.

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