Jewish World Review July 30, 2001/ 10 Menachem-Av 5761

Wesley Pruden

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Consumer Reports

Squashing gringos, and Mexicans, too -- GEORGE W. may want to get a new set of geniuses yet. An unsuccessful Republican attempt yesterday in the Senate to prevent enactment of tougher highway standards tangled partisan lines, with liberals and conservatives on both sides of the vote.

Nevertheless, it's hard to see how making American roads safe for dangerous Mexican trucks, even in hot pursuit of the Hispanic vote, can be turned into a winning campaign issue.

Mexican immigrants, who appear right now to be the sole objects of the Republican strategy for '04 (and maybe even for '02), probably don't like dangerous trucks, either. A 16-wheeler with no brakes will squash a Mexican immigrant with or without a green card just as flat as a gringo with a Mayflower pedigree.

The Senate yesterday waved off George W.'s threat to veto the legislation to mandate tougher safety standards for the Mexican trucks, which, as anyone who has ever driven Mexican highways knows, often fly down the road in shreds and patches. The vote was 70 to 30, and the majority included 19 Republicans. Some Republicans who cast a vote for the Mexican trucks did it only to prevent -- vainly, as it turned out -- an embarrassing defeat for the administration.

The safety legislation will appear to most Americans to be the stuff of common sense, requiring inspections of Mexican trucks and drivers, audits of Mexican trucking companies to make sure they're not dispatching junk to U.S. highways, and putting more inspectors and scales at 27 stations on the U.S.-Mexico border.

John McCain of Arizona and Phil Gramm of Texas are leading the fight to shield the trucks from the tougher standards, and since the House has passed an even tougher version of Mexican truck safety it seems apparent, if not yet clear, that Messrs. McCain and Gramm won't have the 34 votes to uphold a Bush veto.

The Republicans insist they're only making the fight on principle, that the proposed safety requirements would be expensive and time-consuming, just more government red tape, and would prevent the Bush administration from keeping its promise to open all American highways to the Mexicans by Jan. 1. The president, in remarks just before the vote, seemed to be saying something else as well.

"It's 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."

But if the tougher safety standards discriminate against Mexicans, it's the fault of the Mexicans. Nobody makes Mexican truckers drive unsafe trucks, and if the trucks are safe the truckers shouldn't object to tough inspections and standards. The president should be careful that his passionate courting of the Mexicans, with vague allusions to "discrimination," does not descend into racial politics. For one thing, the Democrats have a head start on playing the race card, and are far better at it.

Patty Murray of Washington, a Democrat, and Richard Shelby of Alabama, a Republican, the authors of the tougher requirements, insist their proposal isn't unfair discrimination against the Mexicans, that it's intended to promote safe highways. A vote against their plan, Senator Murray says, "is a vote to expose Americans to new danger on our highways."

Republicans argue that the Democrats and their Republican allies for the day succumbed to entreaties -- and more tangible considerations -- from the Teamsters Union, which wants to keep non-union Mexican truckers off the roads.

Some of the arguments, as is typical of these high-stakes partisan issues, verged into arcania. Farm-state Republicans were warned that if the United States imposes strict safety regulations the Mexicans might retaliate by imposing restrictions on corn syrup, imported from farm-state cornfields.

In negotiations that led nowhere before yesterday's vote, the White House proposed letting the trucks in first, then auditing the Mexican companies over the following 18 months, and would require periodic inspections of the trucks as they cross the border. However, this would not do much for Americans killed on the highways over those 18 months.

This argument over the Mexican trucks is of a piece with George W.'s all-out courtship of the Hispanic vote -- the abandoning of the Navy firing range in Puerto Rico, a proposal to lift all sanctions against the 3 million, or the 6 million or maybe the 9 million illegal Mexican immigrants in the United States. Someone at the White House should do the arithmetic. They're overlooking a lot of other folks -- folks who like immigrants, too -- who will also vote in '04.

JWR contributor Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Washington Times. Comment by clicking here.

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