"We are very near a proposal that we feel will meet all of the safety concerns that I heard when I talked to 25 members of Congress," LaHood said during the hearing.
LaHood was responding to a question raised by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., chairman of the subcommittee. Murray stressed that the issue was "critical," and asked LaHood to tell those working on the proposal that "we need to get this done."
Murry told LaHood that this issue was brought up at the same hearing last year. She was especially concerned over the tariffs Mexico has imposed on over 90 U.S. products. This, she said, has undermined the competitiveness of agricultural products in her home state of Washington.
Under the North American Free Trade Agreement, the U.S.-Mexico border was supposed to have been opened to border-state traffic in 1995 and to long-distance traffic in 2000. The opening was stalled until 2007, in part by difficult negotiations with Mexico, but mainly by the legislative and legal tactics of U.S. labor, owner-operator and citizen advocacy groups who fear loss of U.S. jobs to Mexican drivers and argue that Mexican trucks will not be safe.
After Congress cut off a cross-border trucking pilot program last March by prohibiting funding for such a program, the Mexican government slapped $2.4 billion in retaliatory tariffs on U.S. goods.
"These tariffs are going to send American jobs north to Canada," she said.
"We are finalizing a plan," LaHood said. "The reason it's taken so long is there are a lot of moving parts, including about five different cabinet officials. Every time we make a tweak or a change, everybody has to sign off on it."
Lawmakers Heat Things Up
Meanwhile, a group of 56 lawmakers, lead by Reps. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., and Dennis Cardoza, D-Calif., wrote a letter to Trade Representative Ron Kirk and LaHood urging the Obama administration to resolve the situation, according to reports by Reuters.
"Our constituents need help immediately and we implore you to work quickly to implement a solution that ensures safety and normalizes trade," the letter said, according to Reuters. "Please communicate your plans for a solution so we are better able to understand the administration's strategy."
During a Senate Finance Committee hearing discussing Obama's 2010 trade agenda, Kirk was asked about a potential program. "I know it is having a very negative impact, particularly on many of agricultural industries in California and Washington and Texas," Kirk told the committee. "We want to get it resolved."