updated 9/11/2007 9:10:39 PM ET 2007-09-12T01:10:39

The Senate voted Tuesday to ban Mexican trucks from U.S. roadways, rekindling a more than decade-old trade dispute with Mexico.

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By a 74-24 vote, the Senate approved a proposal by Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., prohibiting the Transportation Department from spending money on a North American Free Trade Agreement pilot program giving Mexican trucks greater access to U.S. highways.

The proposal is part of a $106 billion transportation and housing spending bill that the Senate hopes to vote on later this week. The House approved a similar provision to Dorgan’s in July as part of its version of the transportation spending bill.

Supporters of Dorgan’s amendment argued the trucks are not yet proven safe. Opponents said the U.S. is applying tougher standards to Mexican trucks than to Canadian trucks and failing to live up to its NAFTA obligations.

Until last week, Mexican trucks were restricted to a commercial border zone stretching about 20 miles inside the United States, except in Arizona, where it extended 75 miles. One truck has traveled deep into the U.S. interior as part of the pilot program.

Blocking the trucks would help Democrats curry favor with organized labor, an important ally for the 2008 presidential elections.

“Why the urgency? Why not stand up for the (truck) standards that we’ve created and developed in this country?” Dorgan asked.

Ban about limiting competition?
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who drafted a Republican alternative to Dorgan’s amendment, said the attempt to block the trucks appeared to be about limiting competition and may amount to discrimination against Mexico.

“I would never allow an unsafe truck on our highways, particularly Texas highways,” said Cornyn, whose amendment failed.

Under NAFTA, Mexico can seek retaliation against the U.S. for failing to adhere to the treaty’s requirements, including retaining tariffs on goods that the treaty eliminates, said Sidney Weintraub, a professor emeritus at the University of Texas LBJ School of Public Affairs in Austin.

John Hill, head of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, decried the vote saying it is “a sad victory for the politics of fear and protectionism.”

But Teamsters general president Jim Hoffa, whose union has sued to stop the trucks, cheered the decision. “We don’t want to share our highways with dangerous trucks from Mexico,” Hoffa said.

One carrier already allowed in
The trucking program allows up to 100 Mexican carriers to send their trucks on U.S. roadways for delivery and pickup of cargo. None can carry hazardous material or haul cargo between U.S. points.

So far, the Department of Transportation has granted a single Mexican carrier, Transportes Olympic, access to U.S. roads after a more than decade-long dispute over the NAFTA provision opening up the roadways.

One of the carrier’s trucks crossed the border in Laredo, Texas last week and delivered its cargo in North Carolina on Monday and was expected to return to Mexico late this week after a stop in Decatur, Ala.

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