Slugger Clinton Strikes Out in Baseball Talks

WASHINGTON -- President Bill Clinton threw the power and prestige of the White House into a last-ditch attempt to settle the six-month-old baseball strike, but after almost four hours of negotiations he admitted defeat and said he would ask Congress to impose binding arbitration on the feuding players and owners.


"I had hoped that tonight I'd be coming out to tell you that baseball was coming back in 1995," Clinton told reporters Tuesday at a late-night White House news conference. "Unfortunately, the parties have not reached agreement. The American people are the real losers."


Clinton, Vice President Al Gore and labor mediator William Usery worked from 6 p.m. until after 10 p.m., in talks that bounced around several rooms in the White House's West Wing, to get the players and owners to agree on any one of several proposals: a settlement recommended by Usery that was rejected by the players, an agreement to submit to arbitration that was rejected by the owners, and, finally, a union proposal to play the 1995 season while a fact-finding committee appointed by the president gathered material that might help contribute to resolution of the dispute during renewed talks after the 1995 season. That, too, was rejected by the owners.


Clinton said he plans to send draft legislation to Congress on Wednesday to grant the president power to appoint an arbitration board to impose a settlement on the two sides, which have failed to reach agreement on any major issues.


However, even before the legislation was unveiled, the Republican leaders of both the Senate and House said they oppose immediate congressional action.


"We maintain our view that Congress is ill-suited to resolving private labor disputes," Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole and House Speaker Newt Gingrich said in a joint statement.


The baseball owners also rejected the idea. "Binding arbitration is not the solution to this dispute," acting commissioner Bud Selig said.


Nevertheless, Clinton said it is now up to Congress whether baseball will have a 1995 season or not and, in an unusual gesture, he appealed to the nation's fans to put pressure on their legislators to vote for his proposal.


"The American people have been frustrated by the strike," Clinton said. "There is something the American people can do. They can tell their senator or representative whether they feel this is a proper case for binding arbitration."


Clinton has no legal authority to impose a settlement or force the two sides to submit to arbitration. But Congress can grant him authority to impose arbitration, aides said.


Clinton and his aides appeared stunned by the depth of hostility between the players and owners, and their inability even to talk directly with each other. "It was mostly proximity talks," McCurry noted with a sad smile, using the diplomatic term for negotiations between parties in separate rooms. "They did not do much conversation with each other. They addressed most of their remarks to each other through the president or the vice president."


At one point during the long evening, he said, the owners caucused in the office of White House chief of staff Leon Panetta, union chief Fehr worked in the president's conference room, Clinton talked with players in the hallway and Gore shuttled among the three groups.


Clinton and Gore spent the last hour of talks trying to wrest from the two sides a stopgap agreement to begin the new season, even if they could not agree on any other issues, a deal that would have given the president at least a short-run achievement to give the nation's fans. Both sides rejected the idea, aides said.


Further hostility surfaced in sharp rhetoric between the owners and union personnel after they left the White House and even touched the relationship between the union and Usery over a proposal that union leader Donald Fehr said the mediator was asked to justify and could not. The proposal included a payroll tax that the union said was the equivalent of a salary cap, the cost containment mechanism that has been management's No. 1 objective during the negotiations.


With spring training set to begin in nine days, there was no indication when the talks would resume. Union sources, unhappy with Usery, said they may ask the mediator to withdraw today.


Clinton aides had hoped that the president could pressure the sides into a settlement, or at least an agreement to start the season, in part to win him some grudging credit from the biggest constituency that rejected him in last year's congressional election: white males.


Perhaps for that very reason, Republican leaders walked away from Clinton's mediation effort almost as soon as the president announced it. Even before the players and owners walked into the White House, both Dole and Gingrich said they thought congressional action was a bad idea.