The U.S. Senate voted on Tuesday (Sept. 11) to block funding for a Bush administration test program to let Mexican long-haul trucks operate in the United States under 1994's North American Free Trade Agreement.
One day after a fiery truck accident killed dozens in Mexico, the Senate approved an amendment to a transportation spending bill that would cut off funding for the test, which the administration authorized last week to run for one year.
The House of Representatives has passed a similar measure.
The White House on Tuesday threatened to veto the broad transportation bill because it would spend more money than President George W. Bush requested. It said the administration opposes any restrictions on the cross-border trucking program.
The administration said "it has the necessary safeguards in place to ensure a safe and secure program."
A tractor-trailer loaded with explosives blew up in a huge fireball on Monday after hitting a pickup truck in the northern Mexican state of Coahuila. At least 29 people were killed.
Calling the accident a warning to proceed cautiously, North Dakota Democratic Sen. Byron Dorgan led the effort to deny funding for the program.
Dorgan questioned Mexican truck safety rules, as well as the handling of the test by the Bush administration, which he said "rushed to implement the pilot program late last week -- literally in the dark of night."
He said the Transportation Department authorized the program too quickly, despite a report that found numerous problems with Mexican truck safety records.
Dorgan said the vote against the program was "a turning of the tide on the senseless, headlong rush this country has been engaged in for some time to dismantle safety standards and a quality of life it took generations to achieve."
The pilot program involves both Mexican trucks operating in the United States and U.S. trucks being allowed to operate in Mexico, within limits on both sides.
Arizona Republican Sen. John Kyl, defending the program in Senate floor debate, said the test would involve a maximum of 100 Mexican companies and 500 to 600 trucks on U.S. roads.
"It is worth giving this program a chance ... It is much more efficient and much cheaper for American consumers if those Mexican trucks can travel in the United States," Kyl said.
Missouri Republican Christopher Bond said, "There is some strong support for allowing these trucks to run in the United States." He cited a letter of support for the program from agribusiness interests that said NAFTA promises the program.
John Hill, an administrator in the Transportation Department, called the vote to block the program "a sad victory for the politics of fear and protectionism."
Ohio Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown compared pressure to open up U.S. roads to Mexican trucks to the kind of free-trade pressures that opened U.S. markets to tainted food and toys from China "because it serves multinational corporations."
Brown said, "This pilot program doesn't make sense ... Too often in this chamber we write trade deals that ignore consumers and coddle corporations."
On the overall transportation bill, the Senate approved on Monday an amendment providing $1 billion more for bridge renovations nationwide after last month's collapse of a span in Minnesota and fears that other U.S. bridges were unsound.
Washington (Associated Press)