Collision over truck bill looms
Congress moves to block a Bush administration program that allows Mexican freight-haulers to operate throughout the U.S.
By Richard Simon
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
September 12, 2007
WASHINGTON — -- Congress on Tuesday moved to block the Bush administration from allowing Mexican trucks to travel throughout the United States, setting up a collision with the White House and possibly straining relations with Mexico.
Senators from both parties, citing safety concerns, attached a measure to a transportation spending bill to block funding for the cross-border trucking program. The House earlier this year approved a similar measure, virtually ensuring it will be in the final bill.
Bush has threatened to veto the bill over its price tag, and the White House issued a statement Tuesday saying it "strongly opposes" any effort to delay the program.
The action comes just days after U.S. transportation officials gave a green light to the first of as many as 100 Mexican trucking companies that would be allowed to operate throughout the United States in a one-year demonstration period. Until now, Mexican trucks have been restricted to a narrow zone north of the U.S.-Mexico border where they transfer their cargo to American big rigs.
On Monday, the first Mexican truck delivered a load of steel to North Carolina.
"This is about safety," said Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.), a leading critic of the program. "We don't have equivalent standards between this country and Mexico. Not yet."
Opposing the Senate action, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said, "This is not about safety. . . . It's apparently about protectionism. . . . It's fear of free trade."
After the vote, John H. Hill, head of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which regulates truck safety, called the action a "sad victory for the politics of fear and protectionism and a disappointing defeat for U.S. consumers and U.S. truck drivers."
The debate over Mexican trucks has been waged in Congress, in the courts, in protests at the border and on the presidential campaign trail since the North American Free Trade Agreement passed in 1993.
Tuesday's vote could heighten U.S.-Mexican tensions, which are already strained by the debate over illegal immigration, especially Washington's plans for 700 miles of fence along the border.
Mexican Secretary of the Economy Eduardo Sojo said in a letter to U.S. senators that President Felipe Calderon's administration was "deeply troubled" by efforts to block the program.
The Senate vote was 74-24, more than the two-thirds needed to override a presidential veto, though a number of the Republicans who voted for the measure could side with the president on the overall bill, which would provide nearly $106 billion to fund transportation and housing programs for the new fiscal year beginning Oct. 1.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who voted with California Democratic colleague Sen. Barbara Boxer to delay the program, called the pilot endeavor flawed. "The participating companies have been handpicked to demonstrate success," she said. "This will tell us nothing about how the program would operate if it is expanded to include the broad range of Mexican trucking companies."
The action came despite Bush administration assurances that Mexican trucks and their drivers would undergo rigorous safety checks, including a "39-point, front-to-back inspection" of trucks and drug testing for drivers.
"So why people can, with a straight face, continue to say that the safety of these vehicles is in question is beyond me," Hill said in an interview. "I think it's a very serious matter when two countries come together and agree to do something and then one party doesn't fulfill its obligation."
The Mexican government has allowed the first of as many as 100 U.S. trucking companies to operate south of the border.
The measure drew the support of an unusual coalition, pitting some Republicans against their usual business allies, underscoring the intensity of the opposition.
Welcoming the arrival of Mexican trucks into the country, Thomas J. Donahue, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said last week that the United States would have "no credibility calling on other countries to meet their obligations under trade agreements if we refuse to keep our own."
The Sierra Club, worried that cross-border trucking would increase emissions, and the Teamsters, fearful it would cost U.S. jobs and pose a safety risk, were among those opposing the program.
During the debate on Monday, Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) urged his colleagues to let the program move forward.
"If we don't have at least a demonstration project, what is going to happen when our trucks want to go to Mexico?" he said. "If I were the president of Mexico, I would say there are not going to be any American trucks coming down here. . . . This is not some enemy satellite sitting on our border."
But a fellow Republican, Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, said, "We do want to have good relations with Mexico. We do not want to impede legitimate commerce. But safety is a very vital factor, and there are good reasons to insist on safety and verification before we permit this pilot program with 100 trucking companies."
Dorgan disputed the administration's contention that all of the promised safety precautions had been put in place. He asserted that there had been problems in verifying Mexican trucking company records on vehicle inspections, accident reports and driver violations.
After NAFTA's approval, the Clinton administration refused to let Mexican freight-haulers operate throughout the United States, citing safety and environmental concerns. A NAFTA arbitration panel ruled in 2001 that the United States was violating the agreement.
In 2004, the Supreme Court set aside a lower court ruling that had required U.S. officials to study the environmental impact before allowing older Mexican trucks into the country, ruling that the president had the power to enforce NAFTA.
Opponents highlighted a fiery collision that occurred Sunday in Mexico between two trucks, one of which carried several tons of highly combustible chemicals, that killed more than two dozen people. But supporters noted that Mexican trucks are prohibited from transporting hazardous materials in the United States.