WASHINGTON -- Congress moved yesterday 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 approved a similar measure this year, virtually ensuring that 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 yesterday saying that 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 up to 100 Mexican trucking companies that will 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, a North Dakota Democrat who is a leading critic of the program. "We don't have equivalent standards between this country and Mexico. Not yet."
Opposing the Senate action, Republican Sen. John Cornyn of 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, 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.
Yesterday's vote could heighten U.S.-Mexico tensions, which are strained by the debate over illegal immigration, especially U.S. plans for 700 miles of fence along the southern border. Mexican Secretary of the Economy Eduardo Sojo said in a letter to 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 Bush on the overall bill, which would provide nearly $106 billion to fund transportation and housing programs for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1.
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."
Welcoming the arrival of Mexican trucks into the country last week, Tom Donahue, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said 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.
Richard Simon writes for the Los Angeles Times.