Negotiations are continuing, but yesterday afternoon the Senate voted 70-30 in favor of an amendment that requires the U.S. Department of Transportation to conduct an on-site compliance review of each Mexican company that wants access to the U.S.
Administration officials and their allies in the Senate, including Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., had argued that the plan is too stringent and violates terms of the North American Free Trade Agreement. But the Senate voted with the provision's sponsors, Sens. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Richard Shelby, R-Ala.
"All we are saying (in the amendment) is that the level of safety should be equal on either side of the border," Sen. Murray said in remarks on the Senate floor.
As the afternoon wore on, opponents continued to resist. Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, offered an amendment that said the Murray-Shelby provisions would be binding unless President Bush finds they violate NAFTA. Gramm was not optimistic, however. He said he did not expect his measure to be adopted but vowed to continue the fight against the Murray-Shelby provision. Once the Senate adjourned for the day, Gramm expressed his outrage at the situation, saying, "We're not going to have the administration run over."
Supporters of the tougher safety standards say the vote yesterday signals they can put together the 67 votes need to override a promised veto of their plan by President Bush.
As of yesterday evening, Senate Majority leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., said he hoped to wrap up the legislation by the end of the week, but McCain and Gramm said they would continue to use procedures to slow the legislation unless the other side was willing to compromise.
Opponents of the more stringent Mexican trucks rules say they are unfair because the proposal would require tougher safety standards for Mexican trucks than for Canadian trucks operating in the U.S. Supporters, however, say the real issue is safety. They point to statistics that show Mexican trucks are far more likely to fail inspections in the U.S. than their American on Canadian counterparts.
The Bush proposal calls for letting Mexican trucks in beginning Jan. 1 and then taking up to 18 months to conduct safety checks of Mexican motor carriers. Most recently, facing increased pressure on the issue, the administration also conceded it would require periodic inspections of Mexican vehicles as they cross the border.
The tougher Mexican trucking regulations are contained in a more than $60 million transportation spending bill for the next fiscal year, which is also filled with popular projects for lawmakers' home states.
According to the Associated Press, some senators are privately worried that these projects for their states could be in trouble if they oppose the tougher trucking rules. That's because Sens. Shelby and Murray are the senior members of the Senate Appropriations transportation subcommittee, which gives them a big say in which home state appropriations will survive in the final version of the bill.
AP also reported that GOP leaders even went so far as to circulate comments to farm state Democratic senators from an unnamed Mexican official, saying that if the U.S. was not fully opened to Mexican trucks, they might retaliate by restricting imports from the U.S. of certain farm products.