WASHINGTON — The Senate rejected an initial Republican effort Wednesday to weaken proposed safety standards for Mexican trucks driven in the United States. The chamber's GOP leader accused Democrats of an anti-Latino attitude.
By a 65-35 tally, senators defeated a provision by Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Texas), saying the United States would not "discriminate against Mexico" by imposing tougher requirements on its trucks than on Canadian or American vehicles. Gramm and his supporters said it would violate the North American Free Trade Agreement, an 8-year-old treaty, to clamp stricter standards on Mexican trucks.
The anti-Latino charge by Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) drew a curt response from Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), who denied it, challenged Lott to document his accusations and said he was "disappointed with remarks of that kind."
In a statement issued late Tuesday, Lott said, "It bothers me that there's an anti-Mexican, anti-Hispanic, anti-NAFTA attitude among Democrats that says, 'We really don't want to allow Mexican trucks to come into this country.' " Wednesday, Lott said he was talking about the attitude displayed in the proposal backed by the Democrats rather than the views of individual Democratic senators.
At a briefing for congressional leaders on his trip to Europe, President Bush also called on Congress not to "single out Mexico" in regulating cross-border truck traffic.
"I urge Congress to deal fairly with Mexico and to not treat the Mexican truck industry in an unfair fashion," Bush said. Mexico is "our close friend and ally" and must be treated with respect, he added.
Wednesday's developments underscored the political as well as safety, trade and diplomatic stakes in the fight over Mexican trucks as Republicans try to expand their support among Latinos while Democrats have to juggle sometimes competing interests of ethnic, labor and other constituencies.
The Democratic-backed proposal, which was negotiated to satisfy the Teamsters and other groups, would require Mexican trucks to pass an array of safety checks before being allowed beyond a 20-mile border zone, to which they are now restricted.
"This is not discrimination against Mexico," said Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), who co-sponsored the proposal with Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.). "It's ensuring that the safety of the American public is something that this Congress and this Senate stands behind." Mexico is subjected to tough rules because "it is very clear that Mexican trucks crossing the border have safety violations," she said.
But critics say there are 22 restrictions that together would effectively delay the border opening for two years or more. Bush wants to open the border to long-haul trucks Jan. 1 and has threatened to veto the Senate restrictions, along with an outright ban on Mexican trucks the House has approved.
Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Gramm have proposed a less rigorous set of safety restrictions and appeared from Wednesday's vote to have the 34 votes needed to sustain a veto. But the vote indicated they may not have the 41 votes they need to keep backers of the Murray-Shelby proposal from curtailing the stalling tactics McCain and Gramm have employed in hopes of forcing a compromise.