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Saturday, December 31, 2011

U.S. Ban on Mexican Trucking Is Reconsidered

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration offered a proposal on Thursday to allow long-haul Mexican trucks to move cargo in the United States.

The proposal, which the Mexican government greeted as a positive step, was the latest sign of a new willingness by the Obama administration to support free-trade measures backed by Republicans and by businesses despite objections from labor unions and other liberal constituencies.

The United States has effectively barred Mexican trucks from operating on American roads since March 2009. Mexico said the ban violated the North American Free Trade Agreement, which took effect in 1994, and retaliated by imposing $2.4 billion in punitive tariffs on a wide range of American agricultural and other products imported to Mexico.

On Thursday, the United States transportation secretary, Ray LaHood, offered a “concept document” that could help resolve the dispute.

Under the plan, Mexican long-haul trucking operators could seek permits to operate in the United States so long as they agree to safety, insurance and other monitoring requirements. The proposal would not cover the movement of hazardous materials.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce applauded the proposal, the latest indication of a thawing in the frosty relationship between the administration and the giant business lobby, which spent tens of millions of dollars to defeat Democrats in November.

“It’s past time that we kept our word and complied with the promise we made to allow carefully inspected trucks to move across the border,” Thomas J. Donohue, the president of the chamber, said in a statement. “We will closely study the U.S. proposal and hope we can help implement a modern cross-border transportation system that provides certainty for trucking companies and shippers throughout North America.”

Mexican officials responded positively but cautiously to Mr. LaHood’s proposal, saying they would offer a fuller response on Monday. If a final agreement is reached — a process that could be months away — the tariffs would probably be lifted in a matter of weeks, officials said.

“Mexico will carefully and constructively evaluate the U.S. proposal to solve the longstanding trucking dispute,” the Mexican ambassador to Washington, Arturo Sarukhán, wrote in a Twitter post.

However, the proposal by the Transportation Department was denounced by the Teamsters union, which represents long-haul truckers and fears that expanded Mexican trucking within the United States will threaten jobs.

“I am deeply disappointed by this proposal,” the union’s president, James P. Hoffa, said in a statement. “Why would the D.O.T. propose to threaten U.S. truck drivers’ and warehouse workers’ jobs when unemployment is so high? And why would we do it when drug cartel violence along the border is just getting worse?” Mr. Hoffa also raised safety concerns.

Democratic lawmakers reacted cautiously to the proposal.

Senator Patty Murray of Washington, who is active on agricultural issues, said in a statement: “I am glad that the administration is moving forward with a plan to finally end the devastating Mexican tariffs on Washington State agricultural products.” But she did not explicitly address the trucking dispute or the objections by unions.

The trucking ban took effect after Mr. Obama signed legislation containing a provision that ended a pilot program, begun in September 2007, to allow Mexican trucks north of the border. For months, the administration had said it was working to resolve the dispute, but offered little sign of progress.

Transportation Department officials emphasized that the proposal was only a “starting point for negotiations” and that it would solicit public comment on the final rules.


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