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House Acts To Block Mexican Trucks
Move Is Setback for Bush's Trade Plans
By Juliet Eilperin Washington Post Staff Writer Wednesday, June 27, 2001; Page A01
The House voted last night to bar Mexican trucks from operating in the United States, rejecting President Bush's efforts to increase unfettered U.S.-Mexican trade by opening the country to Mexican carriers.
The surprisingly lopsided vote of 285 to 143, which came as the House approved a $59.1 billion transportation spending bill, would block the administration from going ahead with plans to allow Mexican trucks to ship goods to and from any point in the United States.
The truck access, which was part of the 1993 North American Free Trade Agreement, has been stalled for years. But the Bush administration, reflecting the president's emphasis on improving U.S.-Mexican relations, issued rules in May governing the circumstances under which Mexican trucks would be allowed onto U.S. roads, beginning next January.
The amendment to block the department from going ahead with the plan was backed by a coalition of Democrats and Republicans allied with organized labor. The Teamsters had lobbied aggressively in favor of the amendment, and 82 Republicans joined 201 Democrats and two independents in voting for the measure. The Senate has yet to act on the proposal.
The vote was the latest episode in an ongoing battle over NAFTA pitting labor, environmental and liberal groups against business and other advocates of free trade. Although the truck issue evokes strong emotions about safety and is thus separate from other trade matters, the vote could have an impact on Bush's broader trade agenda of seeking congressional authority to negotiate new agreements with other countries.
"It depends whether this is a symbolic gesture -- just venting displeasure, and giving a bow to the unions," said Jeffrey Schott, a trade expert at the Institute for International Economics. "But if it's a serious attempt to block the administration's decision to move forward with its NAFTA obligations, then the response of the president could further heighten tensions between free-trade forces and pro-labor members of Congress, and further complicate the passage of trade authority."
Under the trade pact, the United States agreed to let Mexican trucks operate in the country as long as they met U.S. safety standards. But the Clinton administration failed to fully open the border, limiting Mexican trucks to a 20-mile commercial zone on the grounds that they posed a potential hazard.
In February, an arbitration panel ruled that the Clinton policy violated NAFTA, and the White House responded by saying it intended to honor the country's obligations under the trade pact. The Transportation Department proposed that Mexican trucking companies file paperwork attesting to the vehicles' safety record before they enter the country. In addition, the Bush administration provided money to hire an additional 80 inspectors, but that money was struck from the spending bill on technical grounds yesterday.
Democrats and some Republicans argued that even an expanded inspection system could not sufficiently monitor Mexican trucks that were not fit to travel on U.S. roads. They noted that nearly 40 percent of Mexican trucks that are now stopped at the border fail a physical inspection.
"NAFTA is a trade pact, it is not a suicide pact," said Rep. David R. Obey (D-Wis.). "We are not required to put our motorists at risk in order to satisfy some international bureaucracy."
Supporters of the administration's policy responded that the United States had an obligation to open its border to Mexico under NAFTA, which groups the United States, Mexico and Canada in a free-trade zone.
"This is about blocking Mexican trucks from coming into the United States," said Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.). "This is not about safety. This is about paperwork."
Lawmakers had originally sought to impose an 18-month delay on Mexican trucks' entry to the United States, during which time federal inspectors could physically examine carriers and trucking facilities in Mexico. But GOP leaders blocked Democrats from offering that amendment, forcing them to push for an outright ban on Mexican trucks. Officials said the ban would affect about 9,000 trucks.
The vote represented a rare moment of bipartisanship in the House. As members filed out of the Speaker's Lobby afterward, several Republicans squeezed the arm of the amendment's author, Rep. Martin O. Sabo (D-Minn.), and offered their congratulations.
"You get surprised sometimes," Sabo told reporters. "I didn't know if it had any chance of winning or not."
Maryland Republican Constance A. Morella and Virginia Republicans Jo Ann S. Davis, Robert W. Goodlatte and Frank R. Wolf and independent Virgil H. Goode Jr. joined Maryland and Virginia Democrats in voting for the amendment to ban Mexican trucks.
Republicans who are usually loyal to the administration said they had foughtthe entry of Mexican trucks for seven years under President Bill Clinton, and could not change their position now. "I don't think people are changing their stripes on it," said Rep. Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio).
"The House vote is the beginning of a long process and we will continue to work with Congress to live up to our NAFTA commitment while ensuring that all U.S. safety standards are met," White House spokeswoman Anne Womack said.
Both sides predicted they would likely modify the proposal once the House began negotiating with the Senate on the transportation bill, which the House passed 426 to 1. Rep. Harold Rogers (R-Ky.), who chairs the House Appropriations transportation subcommittee, said Republicans would "look at our options" in the weeks to come.
"The administration needs to become more engaged on this issue," Rogers said.
Staff writer Paul Blustein contributed to this report.
-- Martin Thompson (firstname.lastname@example.org), June 27, 2001
Mexico Warns Retaliation Against U.S. on Truck Ban
June 27, 2001 2:57 pm EST
MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Mexico warned on Wednesday it would retaliate with trade measures against the United States if the U.S. Senate approves a measure prohibiting Mexican trucks from greater access to American roads. In a vote late on Tuesday, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the measure, which would force Mexican trucks to first meet U.S. safety standards before they are allowed more access to U.S. highways.
President Bush said on Wednesday he would try to reverse the vote, and Mexico made clear it considered the move "unacceptable."
"In the event that the Senate approves this and it becomes law, it would leave us with no other recourse than to take measures (against the United States)," Economy Minister Luis Ernesto Derbez told reporters.
He said one option would be to block imports of high fructose corn syrup from the United States, long a source of trade friction between the two countries. Mexico has already placed prohibitive tariffs on the sweetener.
The Bush administration wants to allow Mexican trucks full access to highways in compliance with the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement between Canada, the United States and Mexico.
The Mexican trucking provision in that accord was blocked by the Clinton administration over safety concerns and opposition from labor groups.
House lawmakers were pushed to pass the new measure by the labor groups that argued against allowing the trucks greater access to U.S. roads on economic and safety grounds.
The issue is a sensitive one because thousands of Mexican transportation firms are affected by restrictions on their access to the United States.
Derbez said the Mexican government was in talks with U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick "to tell him this (measure) would be unacceptable" but added he was confident Bush would be able to reverse the House decision.
The measure was approved as an amendment to a $59 billion transportation spending bill for fiscal 2002. Under the amendment, the Department of Transportation is barred from granting permits to Mexican trucking companies that fail to meet U.S. safety regulations.
-- Martin Thompson (email@example.com), June 27, 2001.
Bush Wants Reversal of Mexican Truck Ban June 27, 2001 3:44 pm EST
By Deborah Charles WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Bush will seek to reverse a House of Representatives vote prohibiting Mexican trucks from greater access to American roads as he aims to comply with a key trade accord, the White House said on Wednesday.
"The president is disappointed in the action that was taken in the House yesterday," said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer. "The president thinks the action is wrong and is going to work to reverse it."
The House on Tuesday approved the measure which would block Bush administration plans to grant Mexican trucks conditional access to American highways while they undergo safety reviews.
Passage of the amendment, sought by Democrats, was unexpected and could confound Bush administration plans to open U.S. highways to Mexican trucks next January under the terms of the North American Free Trade Agreement, known as NAFTA.
In a move that affects thousands of Mexican transportation firms, House lawmakers were pushed to pass the amendment by labor groups who argued against allowing the trucks greater access to U.S. roads on economic and safety grounds.
The amendment was approved prior to House passage of a $59 billion transportation spending bill for fiscal 2002. Under the amendment, the Department of Transportation is barred from granting permits to Mexican trucking companies that fail to meet U.S. safety regulations.
Mexico warned on Wednesday it would retaliate with trade measures against the United States if the U.S. Senate approves a similar amendment and it becomes law.
Mexico's Economy Minister Luis Ernesto Derbez said one option could be to block imports of high fructose corn syrup from the United States, long a source of trade friction between the two countries.
Fleischer said the White House would seek to reverse the House's action when the legislation funding the Transportation Department goes to conference between the House and the Senate to reconcile differences.
RULING COULD CHANGE BUSH PLANS FOR TRUCKING
Trucks from Mexico, the second largest U.S. trading partner behind Canada, are now confined to narrow zones in border states where they transfer their goods to American haulers.
The United States wants to allow Mexican trucks full access to highways in compliance with the 1994 NAFTA pact between Canada, the United States and Mexico. The Mexican trucking provision in that accord was blocked by the Clinton administration for five years over safety concerns and opposition from labor groups.
From January, the Bush administration wants to make Mexican trucking firms apply in writing for clearance to operate for 18 months while safety records are reviewed and periodic border inspections are carried out. If they do not meet U.S. standards at that time, their permission to operate can be revoked.
The Transportation Department estimates about 9,000 Mexican trucking firms are expected to seek authority to operate throughout the United States in 2002.
Fleischer said the decision went against NAFTA. "Anything that's inconsistent with NAFTA will present a graver problem with Mexico," added.
The House action was a victory for labor, which opposes opening the border to Mexican trucks. "This is the top legislative priority this year on transportation labor issues," said Michael Buckley, a spokesman for the AFL-CIO's transportation trades unit.
But business groups expressed concern over the measure. "We've got to honor our obligation ... to let safe trucks across the border," said Frank Vargo, vice president for international trade policy at the National Association of Manufacturers. "It's our view that the administration was well
-- Martin Thompson (firstname.lastname@example.org), June 27, 2001.