Senate gives final congressional approval to compromise with Bush over Mexican trucks entering U.S.

Tuesday, December 4th 2001, 12:00 am

By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Senate gave final approval Tuesday to a compromise with President Bush imposing safety requirements Mexican trucks will have to meet before they can begin hauling cargo across the United States.

The agreement resolved a dispute in which the White House had earlier threatened a veto. Both sides agree that by the time a federal screening system for the trucks can be implemented, Bush's goal of letting the vehicles enter this country beginning Jan. 1 will be delayed, probably for months.

The regulations were included in a $59.6 billion measure financing this year's federal transportation programs that the Senate approved by 97-2. The bill, $1.5 billion over last year's total, includes hundreds of millions of dollars for road-building and other transportation projects in lawmakers' home districts.

In a brief debate, both sides claimed victory.

``The safety requirements in this bill are considerably stronger than anything the administration had proposed,'' said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who with Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., were chief proponents of the regulations.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who supported White House efforts against tougher rules, praised the agreement for ``fully promoting highway safety'' while protecting trade with Mexico.

The new rules include safety examinations of Mexican trucking companies and their vehicles, driver's license verification and other checks _ all performed by U.S. inspectors.

Bush had initially proposed letting the trucks into the United States beginning Jan. 1 while Mexican trucking firms were audited over an 18-month period.

Bush's signature will end a fight that pitted unions and safety groups favoring tougher restrictions against business groups supporting the president. Union members feared lost jobs hauling goods in this country, while companies wanted to avoid middleman costs of transferring goods from Mexican to U.S. trucks when they cross the border.

Under the 1993 North American Free Trade Agreement, Mexican trucks were to begin operating in the United States in January 2000. Former President Clinton delayed that date, but Bush _ who has made better relations with Mexico a priority _ set the January 2001 entry date.

Bush and his supporters accused opponents of seeking to stifle unfettered trade between the two countries. But opponents said many Mexican trucks are less safe than American vehicles.

Until the rules are implemented, Mexican vehicles will be allowed to continue operating in a roughly 20-mile-wide zone north of the country's border.

The new rules will require U.S. officials to perform safety checks of all Mexican trucking companies before they are granted temporary authority to drive throughout the United States.

U.S. inspectors are to visit half of all Mexican motor carriers seeking to enter the United States that have four or more trucks. Within a year, truck scales would have to be installed at the 10 busiest border crossings.

McCain said home-district projects in the bill added up to a ''$1 billion bonus pot.'' Included was $4.5 million for buses in Kentucky, home state of GOP Rep. Harold Rogers, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee's transportation subcommittee; and $4.5 million for bridge construction in Yakima, Wash., home state of Murray, who chairs the Appropriations transportation subcommittee in the Senate.

The House approved the legislation by 371-11 last Friday.

McCain and Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., were the only senators to oppose the bill.

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