- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 2, 2001

The Senate yesterday approved a bill tightening safety standards for Mexican trucks, dealing a heavy blow to the Bush administration's efforts to cultivate closer relations with Mexico.

Ignoring threats from the White House to veto the legislation, senators approved tough safety restrictions on Mexican trucks entering the United States that would violate the North American Free Trade Agreement.

"Our opponents have clearly lost the safety debate," said Sen. Patty Murray, Washington Democrat, who sponsored the restrictions in an amendment to a $60.1 billion transportation bill.

The vote on the full bill, which was approved unanimously, followed a weeks-long battle that the House began in June when it voted to bar Mexican trucks from almost all U.S. highways and with-hold money for border safety inspections.

Under NAFTA, the United States was required to open its highways to Mexican trucks fully by the end of 1999. But the Clinton administration, citing safety concerns, refused to comply with the agreement, a move cheered by labor unions, which fear losing jobs to Mexican drivers.

Mexican trucks are currently confined to a narrow border strip.

Senate Democrats, aided by almost half the chamber's Republicans, followed the House's lead last month by approving their own stringent conditions for Mexican trucks crossing the border.

"Nothing that protects Americans' safety should ever be considered violative of any trade agreement," said Sen. Byron L. Dorgan, North Dakota Democrat.

Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, and other border-state Republicans had put up procedural roadblocks to the bill, but yesterday they gave up.

The Senate had approved the amendment on Mexican trucks by a decisive 70-30 vote on Friday.

The Bush administration, which vowed to uphold NAFTA during the 2000 presidential campaign, announced plans in May to open the border by the end of 2002 and beef up safety inspections. But senators did not think Mr. Bush went far enough.

The Bush plan would require audits only of Mexicans companies' safety programs, not of individual trucks, and the companies could operate on U.S. highways for up to 18 months before being audited.

Mrs. Murray, working with Sen. Richard C. Shelby, Alabama Republican, won backing for a provision that would force Mexican trucks to submit to two separate safety audits before they could leave the border region.

"These are common-sense standards," Mrs. Murray said.

She and Mr. Shelby carry considerable clout with fellow lawmakers because they are senior members of the transportation subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

The committee makes decisions about highway construction projects dear to the hearts of individual senators.

Because the House approved a much tougher bill, the compromise that emerges from conference is likely to be restrictive enough that it violates NAFTA.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Mr. Bush still hopes the conference version could meet the central administration condition of not running afoul of NAFTA.

Republican opponents vowed to prevent House and Senate negotiations on the legislation.

"We intend to fight when we return here in September," Mr. McCain said.

Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, Mississippi Republican, said the Senate would "absolutely" back Mr. Bush's veto, if it came to that.

The vote came a month before Mexican President Vicente Fox is scheduled to visit Washington for an official state dinner.

Mexican Economics Minister Luis Ernesto Derbez, in Washington yesterday to lobby lawmakers on the issue, said Mr. Fox's government does not expect to retaliate against U.S. exports to Mexico, but hinted that this position could change.

The White House is "doing all the action required to see that the treaty will be fulfilled exactly as it has been worded," Mr. Derbez said. "The Mexican administration is satisfied at this point in time."

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