Senate approves safety requirements for Mexican trucks |

Senate approves safety requirements for Mexican trucks

WASHINGTON (AP) – The Senate voted Wednesday to slap strict requirements on Mexican trucks driving into the United States, in a challenge to President Bush. Republicans promised their drive to dilute the veto-threatened standards will resume this fall.

The Senate voted 100-0 to end more than a week of GOP delaying tactics, and then by voice vote approved a $60.1 billion transportation bill for next year containing the regulations. The Bush administration has threatened to veto the otherwise popular bill because of the proposed rules, which the White House and some congressional Republicans say would block trade with Mexico.

Though the ultimate shape of the requirements remains uncertain, Wednesday’s vote was an assertion of the power of the Teamsters union, whose members fear losing jobs, and a blow to Bush and supporters of free trade. The former Texas governor has made improving relations with Mexico and easing international trade restrictions among his top goals.

Sens. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, and John McCain, R-Ariz., said that unless Senate Democrats agree to weaken the provisions, they would resume procedural delays in September when the Senate tries starting negotiations on a compromise bill with the House. Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., guaranteed that Republicans would muster the 34 votes needed to uphold a veto by Bush if necessary.

”They’re not going to win,” said Gramm.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who with Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., was chief author of the package, said there would be no bargaining until negotiations start with the House.

Murray said she was proud of completing the bill ”without compromising one iota on the safety of our families on our highways.”

She also predicted that it would be hard for Republicans to round up 34 votes to support vetoing a bill brimming with home-state transportation projects. Republicans insisted on using a voice vote to pass the spending bill amid expectations that there would be fewer than 34 votes opposing it.

Bush wants to let Mexican trucks deliver goods throughout the United States beginning Jan. 1 under the eight-year-old North American Free Trade Agreement.

But under the Senate bill, they could not do so until Mexican trucking companies are audited by visiting U.S. officials, border stations get more inspectors and scales, and insurance, driving and other standards are met.

Supporters say the requirements – stricter than those required for American truckers – are justified because Mexican vehicles are likelier to flunk inspections. But opponents said some provisions, such as forbidding the shifting of U.S. inspectors to the Mexican border until new ones are trained, were really aimed at delaying the entry of the trucks for years.

The fight has pitted the trucking industry and shippers – hoping for new business in Mexico – against the Teamsters and highway safety groups. Teamsters President James P. Hoffa personally lobbied for the regulations.

The battle also featured a bid by Republicans to paint the legislation as ”anti-Hispanic” and ”anti-Mexico,” which Democrats denied. Lott made those characterizations last week and defended them Wednesday, saying, ”How can you justify that kind of attitude.”

In June, the House voted to flatly ban Mexican truckers from driving throughout the United States. That has also drawn a White House veto threat.

Mexican trucks are currently restricted to a commercial zone that runs up to 20 miles north of the border, in which they generally transfer goods to American vehicles.

Bush initially proposed letting Mexican vehicles into the United States while their companies were audited over 18 months, but the administration later added required border inspections of the trucks.

The transportation bill would boost spending over this year’s levels for aviation, highways and mass transit.

The administration also complained that the bill set aside $2.2 billion for more than 700 projects for lawmakers’ states, more than doubling this year’s price tag. Included is $20 million for the King Coal Highway in West Virginia, home state of Democratic Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert Byrd, and $12 million to extend Interstate 69 in Lott’s state of Mississippi.

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