Bush, Congress reach deal on Mexican truck access

Nov. 29, 2001
WASHINGTON, Nov 28 (Reuters) - The U.S. Congress and the Bush administration reached a tentative deal late on Wednesday on tough safety criteria that
WASHINGTON, Nov 28 (Reuters) - The U.S. Congress and the Bush administration reached a tentative deal late on Wednesday on tough safety criteria that Mexican long-haul truckers must meet to operate their rigs across the United States. The deal ended months of wrangling between Capitol Hill and the White House over the issue, which held up final passage of a $60 billion transportation spending bill and drew a veto threat from President George W. Bush.The lawmakers who negotiated the compromise after different versions of the bill were passed by the House of Representatives and the Senate will put it into final form when they meet today.The provisions allowing Mexican trucks full access to U.S. highways largely reflected stringent conditions approved by the Senate. The House voted for an outright ban on expanded access.The White House had threatened to veto the sweeping appropriations bill, which funds major air, road and rail programs, if it contained either the Senate or House language on trucking.It was unclear when the compromise measure would receive final congressional action, but House and Senate sources said voting in each house could come as early as Friday.Mexican trucks are currently limited to a narrow commercial zone in U.S. border states, where they transfer their goods to American carriers.Proponents of fully opening the border to Mexican trucks hoped to do so by January 2002, but Congress will leave the time frame open, giving the administration flexibility to carry out the safety mandates, a Senate aide said.SAFETY CRITERIAThe compromise legislation would require:-- Electronic verification of the license of every Mexican truck driver crossing the border with high-risk cargo and verification of at least half of all other Mexican truckers every time they cross.-- Rigorous on-site inspection of Mexican trucking companies before their rigs are allowed full access to American highways and reinspection every 90 days.-- Comprehensive safety examinations of the companies before they get conditional authority to operate in the United States. The checks will verify that each company has a drug and alcohol testing program, proof of insurance and operators with clean driving records.-- A prohibition on operations in the United States until the Transportation Department's inspector general audits the U.S. government's ability to enforce the safety standards."I have said all along that we can ensure our safety and promote commerce at the same time," said the chief Senate negotiator, Washington state Democrat Patty Murray.Murray teamed with Republican Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama to write the standards that formed the foundation of the compromise bill.The Bush administration was surprised this summer by Congress' strong feelings about Mexican trucks when it said that the measures passed by the House and Senate violated U.S. free trade obligations.WHITE HOUSE SATISFIEDThe deal reached on Wednesday satisfied White House concerns, lawmakers and aides said. But a White House spokeswoman would not comment directly on the deal, nor would two senior Transportation Department officials."The president would like to sign legislation that accomplishes two goals," presidential spokeswoman Claire Buchan said. "It must ensure rigorous safety and inspection regimes for Mexican trucks operating in the United States, and it must live up to our obligations under the North American Free Trade Agreement."NAFTA, which went into effect in 1994, gave U.S., Canadian and Mexican trucks free access throughout North America. But Mexico's authorization was blocked for years by the Clinton administration because of safety concerns and opposition from U.S. organized labor.Rep. Harold Rogers, a Kentucky Republican and chairman of the House Appropriations transportation subcommittee, called Wednesday's deal fair and said it was supported by the administration."We have reached a compromise that ensures safety on our roadways, allows our borders to be open without unreasonable delay, and that is consistent with our international agreements," Rogers said in a statement.