- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 19, 2001

The Bush administration, bowing to intense bipartisan pressure, yesterday revamped its plan to open the U.S. border to Mexican trucks, a requirement of the North American Free Trade Agreement that has drawn widespread criticism.
Secretary of Transportation Norman Y. Mineta told the Senate Commerce Committee that the administration wants to beef up inspections of Mexican trucks as they cross the border, rather than wait 18 months, as it had planned.
The administration wants the new policy in place by the end of the year.
But skeptical lawmakers suggested that the administration's new position may not be enough to assuage their worries that the Mexican trucks are accidents waiting to happen on U.S. highways.
"This is a nightmare, and we are not ready for this," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, California Democrat.
Nevertheless, Mr. Mineta bluntly told senators that the White House is determined to live up to the deal it made under NAFTA.
"President Bush's senior advisers would recommend that he veto any bill containing provisions that foreclose the possibility of meeting our NAFTA obligations," Mr. Mineta said.
The administration's turnaround came as it became clear that its policy stood little chance on Capitol Hill.
Last month, the House overwhelmingly approved an amendment to the Transportation Department appropriations bill that barred the border opening and denied the administration the $88 million it had requested for new truck inspectors.
A Senate committee then ratcheted up the pressure on the White House two weeks ago by restoring the $88 million and adding another $15 million but imposing tough safety restrictions on Mexican trucks.
With the administration's plans facing opposition in both parties, Republican senators from border states huddled with Minority Leader Trent Lott, Mississippi Republican, and Office of Management and Budget Director Mitchell Daniels, to find a solution.
Calling the lack of compliance with NAFTA "outrageous," Sen. Phil Gramm, Texas Republican, said the trade agreement's supporters would find a way to open the border.
"We're going to ensure every truck is inspected," said Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican.
Under NAFTA, the United States agreed to open the border states — Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California — to Mexican big rigs by 1995. By 1999, all 48 continental states were to have been opened.
Pressured by organized labor, which fears the loss of jobs to lower-paid Mexican drivers, the Clinton administration refused to abide by the 1994 trade agreement, citing safety concerns.
A 1997 Transportation Department survey found that roughly half of all Mexican trucks crossing the border probably would fail safety inspections, and anecdotal evidence has shown numerous problems.
Currently, 14,000 Mexican trucks cross the border each day but are limited to a narrow border region.
The Bush administration plan, announced in May, would have allowed Mexican trucking companies to apply for permission to operate in the United States beginning in 2002. Mexican trucks would have to adhere to the same rules on safety and insurance coverage that American trucks follow.
But federal regulators would not audit the safety practices of the Mexican businesses for up to 18 months.
Under its new plan, the administration would require inspections as the Mexican trucks cross the border, Mr. Mineta said at the hearing. Federal inspectors will look under the trucks for the safety checks, which they will carry out at all 27 border crossings.
Roughly 9,000 Mexican trucking companies are expected to seek authority to operate throughout the United States next year, according to the Transportation Department.
Senators found the timetable particularly worrying.
"I think this is a very ambitious program to get this done by the end of the year," said Sen. George F. Allen, Virginia Republican.
Dave Boyer contributed to this report.

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