Raymond Herrera and Robin Hvidston hold placards as a truck enters the U.S.… (Denis Poroy / Associated…)
WASHINGTON — Congress has hit the brakes on a Bush administration program to give Mexican trucks wider access to U.S. roads, putting President Obama in the middle of a politically sensitive trade dispute.
A $410-billion spending bill that passed the Senate on a voice vote Tuesday would end funding for the cross-border trucking program, one of the most contentious issues to arise out of the 1993 North American Free Trade Agreement.
The House approved the spending measure last month.
Critics of the cross-border program -- including the Teamsters and lawmakers from both parties -- have expressed concern about the safety of Mexican trucks.
Before 2007, Mexican trucks had been limited to a narrow zone north of the border, where they transferred their cargo to American big rigs.
But then the Bush administration granted about 100 Mexican trucks wider access to U.S. roads under a demonstration program.
Obama -- who as a senator had voted to block Mexican freight haulers from operating throughout the U.S. and as a presidential candidate called for renegotiating NAFTA -- is expected to sign the spending bill.
The bill has drawn criticism because it is packed with more than 8,500 earmarks costing more than $7.7 billion, according to the watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense.
"We'll vote to pass this, and the message is: It's business as usual here in Washington," said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a critic of pork-barrel spending who lost the presidential race to Obama.
Throughout the campaign, Obama had pledged to crack down on lawmakers' earmarking funds for pet projects.
But the White House has called the $410-billion bill "last year's business" because it carried over into his administration as a result of spending disputes between Congress' Democratic majority and Republican President Bush.
Bush had resisted Congress' efforts to end the cross-border trucking program.
But Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.), a longtime critic, predicted that it would "finally come to an end" under Obama.
Transportation Department spokesman Bill Adams said the administration recognized congressional concerns about the program and would work "to propose legislation creating a new trucking project that will meet the legitimate concerns of Congress and our NAFTA commitments."
But the U.S. Chamber of Commerce warned in a letter to lawmakers that ending the trucking program "would likely prompt costly retaliation" from Mexico.
Ricardo Alday, a spokesman for the Mexican Embassy in the U.S., assailed the congressional action Tuesday as "protectionism, plain and simple."
"Mexico would expect that at a time of global recession and economic distress, the U.S. would play by the rules, fulfill its international treaty obligations and ensure that bilateral trade is a level playing field, rather than erect trade barriers that undermine much-needed incentives to foster growth," he said, predicting the action would increase consumer costs.
He said the decision has never been about safety.
"During the cross-border trucking demonstration program's 18 months of operation, 26 carriers from Mexico -- with 103 trucks -- and 10 from the U.S. -- with 61 trucks -- crossed the border over 45,000 times without a significant incident," Alday said.
Sean Spicer, assistant U.S. trade representative in the Bush administration, also predicted that the congressional action would have consequences.
"If we're not going to fulfill our obligations, I think the Mexican government will look for opportunities to take back some of their obligations under the treaty.
"At the end of the day, this could easily affect jobs."
But Teamsters spokesman Bret Caldwell said, "Look, we've lost the trade war with Mexico.
"We sent 1 million jobs to Mexico. There's nothing that Mexico could do to us that is worse than what they've already done."
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Here is a look at some of the California projects contained in the $410-billion omnibus spending bill that cleared the Senate on Tuesday:
Sponsored by Democratic Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, with California House members:
$81.6 million for Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority's Metro Gold Line extension from Union Station in downtown Los Angeles to East Los Angeles.
$45 million for a Metrolink extension to Perris in Riverside County.
$15 million for air quality grants to the San Joaquin Valley and South Coast programs.
$9.9 million for a bus-only lane on Wilshire Boulevard from Santa Monica to just west of downtown Los Angeles.
$5 million for the Inland Empire Regional Water Recycling Project.
$2.9 million for Los Angeles Harbor/South Bay Water Recycling Project to develop up to 48,000 acre-feet of recycled water.
$900,000 for a Los Angeles County Department of Public Works-Antelope Valley Recycled Water Improvement Project to help expand a system for transmitting and distributing recycled water throughout the Antelope Valley and construction of a new pump station.
$500,000 for the Grow Inglewood program, a small-business loan program offered by the city's Office of Economic and Business Development.
$478,000 to study a major restoration of the natural environment along the 51-mile Los Angeles River.
Sponsored by Feinstein, with California House members:
$2.9 million for Upper Newport Bay ecosystem restoration in Orange County.
$1.3 million for Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument land acquisition.
Sponsored by Boxer, with California House members:
$570,000 for Santa Clarita Cross Valley Connector to help connect Interstate 5 and California 14.
$380,000 to renovate and purchase the build- ing that houses Para Los Ninos' Vermont Avenue programs. Para Los Ninos serves the South Los Angeles community in this building with pro- grams such as after-school care, youth development and other family services.
Source: Offices of Sen. Feinstein and Sen. Boxer