The White House and the Mexican government both expressed outrage Wednesday over a House vote barring Mexican trucks from unfettered use of U.S. roads, and President Bush's spokesman implied that discrimination against Mexicans was behind the action.
Top Mexican officials here and in Mexico City threatened trade retaliations if the White House, caught off guard by the vote, is unsuccessful in overturning the ban.
"The House action had nothing to do with safety, it has to do with banning trucks because they happen to be operated by our friends to the south," said White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer, using uncharacteristically blunt language. "And the president thinks that's wrong."
Rep. Martin Olav Sabo (D-Minn.), sponsor of the ban, rejected Fleischer's allegation and said Bush administration officials "have got their heads in the sand" when it comes to public concern over the safety of Mexican trucks and drivers.
The House vote--and the resulting flap--complicates the U.S.-Mexico relationship at a time when Bush is trying to nurture closer ties with Mexico and its president, Vicente Fox.
"This also raises real complications for NAFTA and for free trade," Fleischer acknowledged. "And therefore, the president objects."
The controversy also underscored the inability of the White House to hold Republicans in line in the GOP-controlled House--and raises questions about whether Bush can prevail on the truck ban when the matter reaches a House-Senate conference committee.
The lopsided House vote, with many Republicans joining most Democrats, came during the annual appropriation process. Sabo's amendment forbids federal transportation officials from processing applications for Mexican freight haulers to operate throughout the United States.
Currently, Mexican trucks are restricted in the U.S. to a zone extending roughly 20 miles north of the border, beyond which goods must be transferred to U.S. trucks.
The controversy renews one of the most fractious issues to surface since the approval of NAFTA seven years ago.
Although the hemispheric pact obligated the U.S. to open its borders to Mexican and Canadian trucking firms, the Clinton administration, backed by the Teamsters and other unions involved in trucking, refused to allow such unrestricted access to Mexican truckers, citing alleged safety problems with Mexican trucks.
But four months ago, a NAFTA arbitration panel ruled that the U.S. was violating the terms of the treaty. Then the Bush administration set out to develop a plan to allow Mexican trucks to move freely in the U.S.--as Canadian trucks are allowed to do.
In an interview, Sabo said that trucks from north of the border are treated differently because Canada has "an infrastructure in place for dealing with truck safety--an infrastructure that does not exist in Mexico."
In Mexico City, Economy Minister Luis Ernesto Derbez said his government called the truck ban "unacceptable" and said his government would probably retaliate against U.S. exporters if the amendment becomes law.
"It would leave us with no choice but to take measures in response, measures that would affect a number of imports that we are receiving from the United States in a quantity that we would consider equivalent to the loss for Mexico for not having permission that the trucks cross," Derbez told reporters.
He suggested that a likely target would be imports of U.S. fructose, which is already the source of tensions between rival U.S. and Mexican industries.
Imports of U.S. fructose, or industrial sweetener made from corn, have flooded into Mexico as barriers have disappeared with NAFTA's implementation. The Mexican sugar and sweetener industry has found it difficult to compete, losing much of its traditional markets in baking, food processing and animal feed.
"We are working on a list of possible sectors in which we could retaliate," said one senior Mexican official.
Mexican officials also have privately registered their protests to senior Bush administration officials, including Commerce Secretary Don Evans and U.S. Trade Representative Robert B. Zoellick.
"We take this very seriously," said Javier Mancera, minister for trade affairs in the Mexican Embassy here. He said Mexico will be "fully supportive" of the Bush administration's efforts to block the truck ban, adding: "We expect the United States to fully fulfill its NAFTA obligations."
In Mexico, the National Freight Transport Chamber, a trucker trade group, asked the government to retaliate by closing the Mexican border to U.S. trucks.
"We have not asked our government for any trade measure to press the U.S. to open its borders. We only ask that the border is not open to the Americans. That is all," said Manuel Gomez Garcia, the chamber's president.
Sabo dismissed Mexican threats of retaliation, suggesting that it would be counterproductive for Mexico to do so after generating a $34-billion trade surplus with the U.S. last year.
A spokesman for Zoellick declined to comment Wednesday.
"The place the issue needs to be dealt with is in the United States Congress," Fleischer said. "And that's going to be the focus of the president's efforts. And he's going to work hard to reverse this. . . ."
At the U.S. Department of Transportation, a senior official cited statistics to suggest that the quality of Mexican trucks has improved significantly. Speaking under the condition of anonymity, the official said there were about 4.5 million border truck-crossings last year.
Six years ago, Mexican trucks failed inspections at a rate of 54%--a rate that dropped to 36% by last year. The U.S. truck inspection failure rate was 24% last year.
In his daily press briefing at the White House, Fleischer struck an unusually combative tone. He said that if those who voted for Sabo's amendment were truly concerned about Mexican truck safety, they would not have denied Bush's request to more than double the funding for truck inspectors along the border.
"But the House, in the president's opinion, should not ban trucks because they're operated by our Mexican friends to the south," Fleischer said.
Asked if he was implying racism, Fleischer declined to elaborate. He simply read from Sabo's amendment, which said in part: "None of the funds from this act may be used to process applications by Mexican-domiciled motor carriers."
Times staff writers Chris Kraul in Mexico City and Richard Simon in Washington contributed to this story.