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 up to 100 Mexican trucking companies that will be allowed to operate throughout the U.S. 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 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, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety administrator, 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.-Mexico tensions, which already are strained by the debate over illegal immigration, especially America’s plans for 700 miles of fences along the southern border. Mexico’s 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 the president on the overall bill, which would provide nearly $106 billion to fund transportation and housing programs.
The action came despite Bush administration assurances that Mexican trucks and their drivers would undergo rigorous safety checks.