Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton told a labor group here Tuesday that she “raised a big yellow caution flag” against the North American Free Trade Agreement while she was first lady, even though others say she actually promoted the trade deal.
And Gerry McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, vouched for her opposition, telling the labor leaders that the day Nafta was approved, she called him and said, “We lost.”
She told him that “the votes were there for Nafta,” Mr. McEntee said, adding, “So anybody who tries to hang it around her neck is hanging it on the wrong neck.”
There was no applause at that line from the hundreds of labor leaders in the audience, members of the Pennsylvania A.F.L.-C.I.O. But when Mrs. Clinton spoke, they gave her standing ovations at several points during what was a red-meat speech for union workers, highly critical of President George Bush, Senator John McCain, the presumed Republican nominee, and Senator Barack Obama, her Democratic opponent. Mr. Obama is to speak to the same group on Wednesday.
Both Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama have said they would renegotiate Nafta, which many argue has cost jobs, especially in Ohio and western Pennsylvania. Mrs. Clinton has made hay of a top Obama adviser’s telling Canada not to believe that Mr. Obama would really renegotiate the trade deal, while the Obama camp has said that Mrs. Clinton did not really object to Nafta while she was first lady.
Documents released last month of her schedule while she was first lady show that Mrs. Clinton helped her husband sell the Nafta, citing a speech at a confidential White House briefing on the subject in November 1993, days before Congress approved it at the strong urging of her husband.
“I appreciate Gerry talking about how I did speak out, and I did speak out and oppose Nafta,” she said after Mr. McEntee addressed the group. “The president made a different decision, but whether it’s President McEntee or David Gergen or the people who were in those meetings in the White House, they know that I raised a big yellow caution flag. I said, ‘I’m not sure this will work,’ and I have a plan to fix Nafta.”
She told reporters later that she questioned Nafta during her husband’s 1992 presidential campaign and opposed it in the White House with “many different audiences.” But, she said, “when you’re part of the administration, you support the president, and I did.”
She said she argued that the side agreements were not strong enough and there was “no understanding of what it would take” to retrain workers who were going to lose their jobs. She also said she thought health care was such a huge issue that it should take precedence, “but the president did make a different set of decisions,” she said. “That’s what presidents are for.”