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Senate votes to end Republican delay on Mexican truck safety

The Bush administration wants trucks from Mexico to be able to travel throughout the United States, with periodic inspections as they cross the border.  

By CNN Capitol Hill Producer Dana Bash

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Supporters of imposing safety standards on Mexican trucks coming into the United States won a key vote in the Senate on Thursday to move forward with legislation President Bush calls too restrictive, and vows to veto.

The 70-30 vote, a victory for Democrats and the Teamsters Union, overcame GOP delaying tactics. But Republican leaders who say the bill is restrictive and violates the North American Free Trade Agreement -- which promotes more trade between the United States, Mexico and Canada -- promised to use other parliamentary maneuvers to stall passage of the legislation.

To fulfill provisions under NAFTA, Bush wants to let Mexican vehicles travel through the United States starting January 1. Current law allows the trucks only through a 20 mile zone north of the Mexican border.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington, and Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Alabama, co-sponsored what they called a compromise package of safety standards for those Mexican trucks, including a safety audit for each truck firm before a U.S. operating certificate is granted, more scales and U.S. inspectors at the U.S-Mexican border crossings, and a requirement for Mexican truckers to comply with U.S. hours-of-service rules.

Murray said tougher safety standards for Mexican trucks are imperative because they have a much higher inspection failure rate than U.S. or Canadian trucks.

"All we are saying is that if we're going to have continued trade, let's at least ensure that the level of safety is equal on the other side of the border," said Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-South Dakota.

But Republicans called the restrictions anti-Mexican and anti-Hispanic.

"I urge the Senate to reject an amendment to the transportation bill that would clearly discriminate against Mexican truckers," Bush said Thursday.

Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Mississippi, earlier in the week accused Democrats of having "sort of an anti-Mexican or anti-Hispanic, anti-NAFTA attitude that we really don't want to allow Mexican trucks to come into this country."

Daschle said he was "saddened" by the accusation, saying a number of Republicans supported a much more restrictive measure that passed the House.

"A large number of Republicans and members of the Hispanic caucus voted for an even tougher safety measure in the House of Representatives," he said. "So I am perplexed and saddened by characterizations of that kind. It's unnecessary. It does a disservice to the debate. And I think it clouds the real issue."

But Sens. John McCain, R-Arizona, and Phil Gramm, R-Texas, who led the charge against the largely Democratic measure, said those safety standards would delay Mexican truck access to the United States for two years.

McCain and Gramm said their own list of safety standards will not slow Mexican truck's access to the United States.

The two sides have been in negotiations for a compromise, but neither reported much progress.

Thursday's was a defeat for Senate Republican leaders who looked to this vote as the first test of their power to display unity in the minority in steering Bush's agenda through the chamber.

Despite vows to keep delaying, it was clear that the Democrats have the votes to pass the legislation.

Antonio Ortiz, a researcher specializing in international trade for CIDE, one of Mexico's leading social science research institutions, said the situation is extremely complex in Mexico.

He said the government adamantly believes the tougher restrictions would be a violation of NAFTA. On the other hand, many Mexican trucking associations say lesser restrictions would increase competition within its border because U.S. truckers, under a reciprocal agreement, would be allowed to come more freely into Mexico.

"So you have the (Mexican) government on one side, and some of the trucking associations on the other," Ortiz said.

But he said the government is particularly concerned about what it perceives as a violation of NAFTA, saying it "could establish a bad precedent of non-compliance."

"The question now is what to do about the violation," he added. "If the U.S. doesn't comply (with NAFTA), then Mexico would have to impose trade sanctions on the U.S., and that would not be a very helpful start to this supposed special relationship between the two presidents, Bush and (Vicente) Fox."

He added: "I also think we have to wait to see how this plays out, and if Bush vetoes it."


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