The House on Tuesday threw an unexpected roadblock in front of the Bush administration's efforts to give Mexican trucks unfettered access to U.S. roads, reviving a bitter dispute over implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Democrats picked up enough Republican votes to approve an amendment that would forbid federal transportation officials from processing applications for Mexican freight haulers to operate throughout the United States.
The lopsided 285-143 vote surprised even supporters of the amendment, which was designed to force the administration to take stronger measures to ensure that Mexican trucks pass rigorous safety checks before they cross the border.
The move resurrects perhaps the most contentious issue to arise since adoption of NAFTA in 1994. The hemispheric trade agreement obligated the United States to open its borders to Mexican and Canadian trucking firms so they could compete directly with U.S. carriers. But the Clinton administration refused to provide unrestricted access to Mexican truckers, citing concern about the safety of their vehicles. Its position was strongly supported by the Teamsters and other labor unions involved in U.S. trucking operations.
In February, a NAFTA arbitration panel ruled that the United States was violating the terms of the treaty. The Bush administration promised to develop a plan for allowing Mexican trucks to move freely in the United States, subject to U.S. safety laws.
The Democratic amendment was added to the annual transportation appropriation bill, which won overwhelming House approval Tuesday evening. The bill now moves to the Senate, where the Mexican truck debate is likely to be revisited.
The Bush administration had said it was "strongly opposed to any amendment" that would require Mexican motor carrier applicants to undergo safety audits before being granted authority to operate beyond commercial zones on the U.S.-Mexico border. Requiring such safety checks would violate the NAFTA agreement and the president's strong commitment to open the U.S.-Mexico border to "free and fair trade," the administration said.
But some Republicans expressed concern about a political backlash if Congress did not take stronger action to ensure the safe operation of Mexican trucks allowed to operate throughout the United States.
Currently, Mexican trucks are restricted to a zone extending about 20 miles north of the border. Any goods headed for destinations farther north must be transferred to U.S. trucks.
The administration had planned to permit Mexican trucks to go anywhere in the United States, beginning in January, as long as they certified that their vehicles complied with U.S. safety standards. U.S. transportation officials would have been given 18 months to verify those claims.
Democrats, backed by labor unions and highway safety groups, initially tried to amend the transportation bill to require safety inspections of Mexican trucks before they would be allowed to operate throughout the United States. But their proposal was rejected on a largely party-line vote.
But they managed to accomplish the same thing by altering the amendment so it prohibited the Transportation Department from spending money to process applications from Mexican truckers.
That approach won over enough Republicans to stick, even though GOP leaders warned that it would rekindle a contentious NAFTA dispute, possibly subjecting the United States to heavy sanctions.
"My concern is the safety of those trucks," said Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-San Diego), who voted with the Democrats.
Democrats said after the vote that they would attempt to get the Democrat-controlled Senate to offer its original amendment to let Mexican trucks into the country only after passing inspections.
"NAFTA is a trade pact," Rep. David R. Obey (D-Wis.) said during the debate. "It is not a suicide pact."
Rep. Martin Frost (D-Texas) added: "This is a serious safety issue coming to highways all across America."
Federal transportation officials had planned to subject Mexican trucking companies to what they characterized as a rigorous application process for an 18-month provisional permit. During that period, companies would undergo a safety audit and their trucks would be subject to spot inspections.
House GOP leaders pledged to seek about $100 million to beef up truck inspections at the border by January.
But Democrats urged a tougher approach, contending that Mexican trucks and drivers should undergo safety checks before they hit the U.S. roads. About one-fourth of Mexican trucks inspected at the California border last year were declared unsafe and ordered off the road, according to federal officials.
During the debate, Rep. Harold Rogers (R-Ky.) said: "We will be inspecting the dickens out of the trucks that cross the border. . . . But please, don't vote on an amendment that would be a direct violation of a treaty of the United States of America."
A NAFTA arbitration panel ruled earlier this year that the United States must open its roads to Mexican trucks, subject to compliance with U.S. safety laws. The Bush administration said it would accept the ruling, reversing former President Clinton's policy of refusing entry to Mexican freight haulers.
California's truck inspection program has been praised as better than those operated by other border states. Even so, Rep. Bob Filner (D-San Diego) contended that only a small percentage of Mexican trucks are inspected, and it is difficult to determine how long a driver has been behind the wheel without a break.
The dispute over the safety of Mexican trucks was one of the most contentious issues addressed in the $59-billion transportation funding bill for fiscal 2002.
The measure will finance transportation projects big and small across the country. Among the California projects: engineering for a downtown Los Angeles-to-Eastside light rail line, $5.5 million; Van Nuys railroad crossing safety improvements, $200,000; and Rose Bowl traffic control measures, $600,000.
The bill now goes to the Senate, where Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) pledged to take up the issue of Mexican truck safety.