DEMOCRATS say Senate will complete bill with Mexican truck safety standards next week

Saturday, July 28th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Democratic leaders predict the Senate will end Republican stalling tactics and pass legislation next week setting tough safety standards for Mexican trucks driven in the United States.

The Senate voted 57-27 Friday to close off GOP procedural delays, but that fell short of the 60 votes required to curtail the delays.

The White House contends that the safety standards would stifle trade with Mexico and has threatened a veto by President Bush.

Republicans said Friday's vote would pressure Democrats to negotiate. ``In the end, this language is going to be rewritten,'' Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., told reporters shortly before the Senate adjourned until Monday.

But Democrats scoffed at that, arguing that the vote had fallen short only because many senators had left for the weekend. They predicted the Senate would complete the bill next week _ and that Democrats would not bargain until House-Senate negotiators write a final version of the legislation.

``This strategy is bizarre,'' Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., told reporters of the Republicans' tactics. ``They are delaying the inevitable.''

The fight focuses on Bush's plan to open American roads to Mexican truckers on Jan. 1, following the dictates of the 1993 North American Free Trade Agreement among the United States, Mexico and Canada.

Below the surface, however, is positioning over the Hispanic vote, free trade, the power of unions and the Democrats' ability to efficiently move their agenda through the Senate.

Senate Democrats, and nearly half the chamber's Republicans, would impose a series of standards covering inspections, drivers' records and insurance on Mexican trucks and their owners. Bush says the plan would stifle trade with Mexico and is unfair because requirements are stricter than for Canadian vehicles.

Bush prefers giving Mexican trucks access to U.S. roads, and then auditing Mexican trucking companies over the next 18 months. Under criticism for being too lenient, the administration has said it also would require periodic inspections of vehicles as they cross the border.

Bush and his GOP allies were using the drawn-out debate to make repeated references to the fairness with which the standards would treat Mexicans. Lott has called the Democratic position ``anti-Mexican'' and ``anti-Hispanic.''

Supporters of the Senate restrictions have justified their plan by saying Mexican trucks fail more safety inspections than U.S. or Canadian vehicles. Democrats and even some Republicans have criticized Lott's remark.

``I would strongly suggest that those who are using the race card in this debate for personal or political gain, put a lid on it,'' Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo., said Friday.

Even so, it seemed likely that the debate was attracting attention in border states with sizable Hispanic populations.

Bush got 35 percent of the Hispanic vote nationally last year, but six of 10 Hispanics in a June Gallup poll said they approve of the job he is doing. Republicans would love to attract more support from Hispanics, 60 percent to 80 percent of whom identify with Democrats in most states.

Another subtext is the battle between business and labor that characterized NAFTA's passage in 1993. The Teamsters union fears its members would lose jobs if Mexicans began driving in the United States, while the U.S. trucking industry and other businesses are hoping to gain customers by being allowed to drive into Mexico.

Related to that is the ideological gulf between lawmakers who favor free trade and those who want restrictions.

The truck standards are part of a $60.1 billion transportation spending bill, one of 13 annual spending measures for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1.

In recent weeks, Republicans have slowed those bills with fights over nominations, and the truck battle is the latest stumbling block. Some Republicans would not mind if the bills are not finished on time, denying majority Democrats a claim to running the Senate smoothly.