- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 25, 2001

Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott warned yesterday of a Mexican backlash against U.S. participation in the North American Free Trade Agreement unless Mexican freight trucks were given greater access to the United States.

Meanwhile, Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, threatened to slow Senate work to a crawl unless a compromise could be reached that would allow the Mexican trucks into the United States.

Mr. Lott said the ban on Mexican trucks favored by the House of Representatives, and restrictive safety, inspection and licensing standards preferred by some senators, reflected "an anti-Mexico, anti-Hispanic, anti-NAFTA attitude."

He said he believed an agreement was possible only if the Senate and the House were willing to compromise.

"If we don't do that, our trucks aren't going to be able to go to Mexico, and we're going to be hit with a billion dollars in duties," said Mr. Lott.

The Mississippi Republican said the trucking issue comes at a critical time, when the United States is making significant progress with Mexico on the issues of illegal immigration and drug smuggling.

Mr. Lott spoke to news media after a working lunch with Senate leaders and Vice President Richard B. Cheney in the Capitol.

The 1993 North American Free Trade Agreement is supposed to eliminate trade barriers among the United States, Canada and Mexico, but Mexican trucks are restricted to an area within 20 miles of the U.S. border.

The House on June 21 approved a bill banning access of the Mexican trucks to the United States and sent the measure to the Senate. Mr. Lott and other senators, however, said the House bill violates U.S. obligations under NAFTA.

Senate-led proposals would give the Mexican trucks permission to ship to and from anywhere in the United States if they meet safety, inspection and licensing requirements. The remaining dispute among the senators is over how restrictive the requirements should be.

Sens. Patty Murray, Washington Democrat, and Richard C. Shelby, Alabama Republican, are pushing for tough rules. They want to require safety audits of Mexican trucking companies and their trucks before they could enter the United States.

Their proposal seems to have majority support in the Senate and perhaps more than 60 votes, the minimum needed to halt filibusters, or procedural delays aimed at killing legislation.

Mr. Lott said the Murray-Shelby proposal imposes unfair standards on Mexican truckers, such as requiring Mexican trucks to pass through scales that measure weight both stationary and in motion. He said the requirement of both kinds of scales was "very restrictive" and costly.

"It clearly is not in compliance with NAFTA," Mr. Lott said.

The Bush administration wants the Department of Transportation to determine standards for Mexican trucks and to open American roads to Mexican trucks on Jan. 1.

That plan is supported by U.S. trucking companies and businesses whose products are shipped on trucks, but opposed by the Teamsters union and highway-safety groups.

Mr. McCain said Senate leaders planned to meet again with President Bush to discuss a compromise.

Mr. McCain supports the White House position of unrestricted access for legal Mexican trucks and said at least 34 senators agree with him. That would be enough to sustain a veto the White House has threatened over the Senate proposal that includes safety audits.

An initial meeting among administration officials and senators from both sides of the issue failed to produce an agreement. Mr. McCain said he planned "extended debate" unless a less-burdensome compromise could be worked out.

He was threatening, in effect, to tie the Senate in procedural knots until its scheduled August recess. The delay could thwart the desire of Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat, to push at least four bills through the chamber before the recess.

"The administration's senior advisers have recommended a veto unless the language is changed," Mr. McCain said.

Sen. Larry E. Craig, Idaho Republican, said Congress has an obligation under NAFTA to give the Mexican trucks access to the United States.

"When you strike a deal, you ought to honor that deal," Mr. Craig said.

He also expressed concern that failure to reach a compromise could sour relations with Mexico.

"Certainly with the Mexican government, this is a very important issue," Mr. Craig said.

Ed Mortimer, senior trans-

portation-policy manager for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said Mexican trucks that meet reasonable safety standards "shouldn't be treated any different from Canadian or American trucks."

"We signed an agreement under NAFTA to do cross-border trucking with both Mexico and Canada. That agreement basically said that cross-border trucking is allowed as long as the trucks meet each country's standards," he said.

The consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, however, said unsafe Mexican trucks would endanger Americans.

"There is a severe shortage of border inspectors, and unlike the United States and Canada, Mexico has not implemented a safety-oversight system for trucks and does not enforce hours-of-service rules," the group said in a letter to senators.

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