- The Washington Times - Friday, July 27, 2001

Democratic lawmakers, already facing Republican gains with Spanish-speaking voters, yesterday were fighting accusations that they are biased against Mexicans in a Senate trucking dispute.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle said he was "baffled and very deeply troubled" by comments from Republican leaders that Democrats were showing an anti-Mexican bias in demanding stricter regulation of trucks entering the United States from Mexico.
The Senate voted 70-30 yesterday to limit debate and bring the measure to a vote, a victory for Democrats and their Teamster allies. It was a setback for President Bush, who urged the Senate to reject the measure "that would clearly discriminate against Mexican trucks."
"It is wrong for the Congress to discriminate against Mexican trucks," Mr. Bush told reporters in the Oval Office.
Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, Mississippi Republican, said there was an "anti-Mexican" attitude by Democrats in the debate; Republican Sen. Pete V. Domenici of New Mexico said the Democrats' position amounts to "borderline discrimination."
"I am perplexed and saddened by characterizations of that kind," Mr. Daschle, South Dakota Democrat, said. "It's unnecessary, it does a disservice to the debate, and I think it clouds the real issue."
Republican senators, aware that Hispanics are the fastest-growing voting bloc in the United States and that Democrats have close ties to the Teamsters union, say Spanish-speaking voters are paying attention to the issue. They say it could hurt Democrats in next year's Senate elections and in the presidential race in 2004.
"I think they pay attention to anything of this nature," Mr. Lott said. "They get the message that the Teamsters are calling the shots here and they don't want the Mexican trucks in the United States, and that's not a good attitude."
An AFL-CIO official, Sonny Hall, hailed the Senate's vote.
"The American people — including the hundreds of thousands of commercial drivers we represent — reject the idea that our country should ignore the well-documented safety threats posed by allowing trucks and buses from Mexico unencumbered access to our highways," said Mr. Hall, president of the union's transportation trades department.
Mr. Bush has sought especially close ties with Mexican President Vicente Fox, and he has appointed Hispanics to key posts in his administration, such as Housing and Urban Development Secretary Mel Martinez.
A senior leadership aide said Senate Republicans are using the trucking issue to build on Mr. Bush's growing popularity with Spanish-speaking voters.
"We believe, over time, that we can sink this hook in pretty deep and this vote [on trucks] can be cited over and over," the aide said. "This is one signpost of several we can point to that we have a respectful relationship with Latin America and Democrats do not. We're pointing out that Democrats have this faint racist tinge to their behavior."
Democratic lawmakers deny accusations of racism in the debate on trucking and say House Republicans put into place even heavier restrictions on Mexican trucks in their version of the bill.
Sen. Patty Murray, Washington Democrat, said the measure she co-sponsored with Republican Sen. Richard C. Shelby of Alabama is necessary "so that when you're driving down the highway next to a truck with Mexican license plates, you'll know that truck is safe."
"This is not about partisanship or protectionism; it is about productivity and public safety," she said.
Mexican trucks currently must stay in a commercial zone in border states, where they load their cargo onto American trucks.
The Democratic Senate provision would impose tougher safety regulations than the Bush administration wants for allowing Mexican trucks wider access to U.S. roads beginning in January.
Mr. Bush, who has threatened to veto the bill, says the measure violates the North American Free Trade Agreement.

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