Infuriated Democrats vowed Monday to kill a pilot program that gives Mexican trucks access to U.S. highways after the Bush administration - acting on the first day of Congress' summer recess - announced that it was extending the test project.
Rep. James L. Oberstar, chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said the administration's maneuver was the latest attempt to flout the will of Congress on the matter, and said he will introduce legislation ending the program once and for all.
"When Congress reconvenes in September, I intend to have the full House of Representatives approve our bill as quickly as possible, and make certain that the voice of Congress is heard loud and clear at the Department of Transportation and that this program is finally shut down," the Minnesota Democrat said.
The committee approved a bill Friday to prohibit continuation of the program beyond its original end date of Sept. 6. That measure still requires a vote by the full House when lawmakers return in September.
John H. Hill, administrator of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, said the Mexican truck program has been successful and deserves to be expanded. He said the program is designed to save consumers money by reducing shipping costs.
"We intend this extension to reassure trucking companies that they will have sufficient time to realize a return on their investment, and we anticipate additional participation with this extra time," Mr. Hill said. "The extension will ensure that the demonstration project can be reviewed and evaluated on the basis of a more comprehensive body of data."
Ten U.S. companies are participating in the program - an outgrowth of the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement that cut trade barriers among the United States, Mexico and Canada - running 55 trucks south of the border. Twenty-seven Mexican companies have joined the program, operating 107 trucks in the U.S. The program's terms permit up to 500 trucks from 100 Mexican motor carriers full access to U.S. roads.
U.S. truckers say the lower labor costs of Mexican drivers cut into their business and could result in job losses. They also say Mexican drivers and equipment are not held to the same high safety standards as their U.S. counterparts.
"How many lives do we have to risk on our highways before the Bush administration puts public safety ahead of the greed of multinational corporations looking to send more of our middle-class jobs to Mexico?" said James P. Hoffa, president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.
Mr. Hill said the program has demonstrated that complaints of opponents are unfounded.
"To date, the project has shown that U.S. and Mexican carriers can engage in cross-border trucking operations in compliance with applicable laws and with no compromise to public safety or security," he said.
Sen. Byron L. Dorgan, North Dakota Democrat, called the extension a "reckless arrogance for the law," and Mr. Oberstar, who led the push to stop the program last year, said it was "no coincidence" that the administration waited until the first day of Congress' recess to announce plans to extend the one-year project for another two years.
This article is based in part on wire service reports.