Kwame Holman takes a look at the safety of Mexican trucks crossing the border onto U.S. highways.
KWAME HOLMAN: NAFTA, the agreement designed to create free trade among the U.S., Canada, and Mexico, was ratified by Congress in 1993; President Clinton signed it in a lavish ceremony at the Commerce Department. ( Applause ) Eight years later, however, major elements of the agreement still haven't been implemented, and some supporters are frustrated. Missouri Senator Kit Bond:
SEN. CHRISTOPHER "KIT" BOND: The simple fact remains that NAFTA did pass. It is now a result of the land. We, as members of this body, have the responsibility to uphold the law and to assure that we take no deliberate action to violate it.
KWAME HOLMAN: NAFTA still has wide support in Congress. But on the floor of the Senate this week, the trade agreement has been at the center of a dispute over requiring safety inspections of trucks entering the United States from Mexico. Washington state Democrat Patty Murray chairs the Transportation Appropriations Committee and, with Alabama Republican Richard Shelby, has added to next year's spending bill a long list of safety requirements Mexican trucks would have to meet before they cross the border.
SEN. PATTY MURRAY: Under our bill, when you're driving on the highway behind a Mexican truck, you can feel safe. You'll know that truck was inspected and the company has a good track record. You'll know an American inspector visited their facility and examined their records just like we do with Canadian trucking firms. You'll know the driver is licensed and insured and the truck is weighed and is safe for our roads and our bridges. You'll know we're keeping track of which drivers are obeying our laws and which ones are not. You'll know drivers who break our laws won't be on our roads because their licenses will be revoked. You'll know that the person behind the wheel of an 18- wheeler has not been driving for 20 or 30 straight hours. You'll know that the truck didn't cross... just cross our border unchecked but crossed where there were inspectors on duty. That, Madam President, is a real safety program.
KWAME HOLMAN: Currently, Mexican truck travel is limited to a 20- mile commercial zone north of the border. President Bush wants that restriction lifted on January 1, allowing Mexican trucks to travel throughout the United States. But new, tough safety inspections could delay unrestricted Mexican truck travel for years. This morning, President Bush called the proposed safety inspections unfair.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: It is wrong for the Congress to discriminate against Mexican trucks, and I urge the Senate to reject an amendment to the transportation bill that would clearly discriminate against Mexican truckers. Our Mexican counterparts and friends need to be treated just like the Canadians are treated. We ought to... We ought to, you know, accept the spirit of NAFTA. And so whether it be people or trucks or businesses, I solidly reject discrimination against people who are here of all origins, particularly Mexico.
KWAME HOLMAN: Mexican trucks already are stopped at the border and checked for illegal drug shipments. Agricultural products are inspected as well. And now all senate Democrats, joined by more than a dozen Republicans, have gotten behind the new truck safety standards. North Dakota Democrat Byron Dorgan:
SEN. BYRON DORGAN: They have no minimum standard hours of service in Mexico. They don't carry logbooks in their truck. They, by and large, do not have inspections for safety on their vehicles. They have no random drug testing for their truck drivers. You can just go on, and on, and on.
KWAME HOLMAN: New Jersey Democrat Robert Torricelli:
SEN. ROBERT TORRICELLI: Mexico, until recently, has had no restrictions on hazardous cargo. No warnings, no signs, no background checks. Those cargoes will flow into America. Mexico does not have the emissions controls of the United States that have been so important in my state and other urban areas around the country. Those trucks will come into the United States.
KWAME HOLMAN: But opponents of the tougher safety restrictions argue Mexican trucks, once in the United States, will have to meet the same standard trucks must meet. In addition, says Texas Republican Phil Gramm, the proposed regulations are in violation of the NAFTA agreement.
SEN. PHIL GRAMM: Basically, what we are seeing here is a choice between special interest groups, and high on the list is the Teamsters Union. They don't want Mexican trucks because they don't want competition. My point is we should have thought about that when we approved this trade agreement because we made a solemn national commitment to allow Mexican trucks to operate in the United States, American trucks and Canadian trucks to operate in Mexico. Our credibility all over the world in hundreds of trade agreements is on the line. If we go back on the commitment we made to our neighbor, if we discriminate against Mexico, how are we going to have any moral standing in asking other countries to comply with the agreements they have negotiated with the United States?
KWAME HOLMAN: And the fact that the new inspections would apply to Mexican, but not Canadian trucks, prompted Minority Leader Trent Lott on Tuesday to say this:
SEN. TRENT LOTT: It bothers me that there's sort of an anti-Mexican, an anti-Hispanic, anti-NAFTA attitude; we really don't want to allow Mexican trucks to come into this country.
KWAME HOLMAN: To which Majority Leader Tom Daschle today responded:
SEN. TOM DASCHLE: Madam President, that is not only disappointing, it does a disservice to this debate.
KWAME HOLMAN: A procedural vote this afternoon indicated tougher safety standards for Mexican trucks have gained broad bipartisan support in the Senate. And last month, the House overwhelming approved even more restrictive requirements. That could lead to a showdown with President Bush, who has indicated he would veto any legislation that includes tough Mexican truck regulations.