Tags: mexico | trucks | nafta | bush

Businesses, Obama Feuding Over Mexican Truck Law

Wednesday, 05 Aug 2009 08:14 AM

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WASHINGTON -- U.S. business groups are growing increasingly frustrated with President Barack Obama's failure to resolve a cross-border trucking dispute with Mexico they say has threatened thousands of American jobs.

"We've got companies that are really concerned," said Frank Vargo, vice president for international economic affairs at the National Association of Manufacturers.

"Our calculation is that we've got 15,000 jobs at risk and the longer this goes on, the more likely it is that Mexican buyers are shifting suppliers," Vargo said.

U.S. manufacturers hold out hope Obama's meeting early next week in Guadalajara with Mexican President Felipe Calderon and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper could set the stage for action in Congress later this year.

But Steven Mulder, executive director of the Alliance to Keep U.S. Jobs, a group of 150 U.S. manufacturing and agricultural exporters formed after Mexico impose retaliatory tariffs on $2.4 billion of U.S. goods, said he has not even been able to find out who is charge of the matter for Obama.

"Basically, the answer we get is "we're all working on it," Mulder said. "There hasn't been much progress. If there has, they're being really quiet about it . . . We are, like every issue, basically second fiddle to healthcare."

In the meantime, U.S. paper producers, potato farmers, grape growers and other businesses are suffering lost sales because of the duties Mexico imposed, Mulder said.

UNFULFILLED NAFTA COMMITMENT

Calderon's administration took the move after Obama signed a 2009 spending bill that canceled a pilot program allowing Mexican trucks to operate beyond a 25-mile (40-km) commercial zone along the U.S. border with its southern neighbor.

The program was designed by the Bush administration to make good on a much-delayed U.S. commitment in the North American Free Trade Agreement to open its roads to Mexican trucks.

Congress killed the program because of what it called safety concerns, but Mexico said the move was really just disguised protectionism enacted on behalf of the powerful U.S. Teamsters union.

Obama tapped U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood to meet with members of Congress and other stakeholders to devise a plan to resolve the issue.

LaHood delivered his recommendations, but they are apparently "languishing in the White House," Vargo said.

A second business official, who asked not to be identified, said she understood there had been some interagency discussion of LaHood's proposal.

But the White House apparently still has not told the Transportation Department whether LaHood's plan was acceptable or not, the business aide said.

A White House spokesman did not respond to a request on where the review of LaHood's plan now stood.

A Transportation Department spokeswoman said she had nothing new to report on the matter.

Obama told reporters in Mexico City on April 16 that his team was "working with President Calderon's team to resolve this issue and I'm hopeful we that can."

Three weeks earlier, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also sounded optimistic, telling reporters the administration was "making progress" on the issue.

Representative Kevin Brady, a Texas Republican who wrote Obama in March to urge quick action on the issue, said he found it unimaginable that Obama would go to Mexico without some positive news for Calderon.

"The president going to Mexico and not trying to resolve the trucking dispute would be like going to the G20 and ignoring the financial crisis," Brady said.

"This is a very real dispute. The clock is ticking and there's a lot of American farmers and manufacturers that are paying a pretty steep price," he said.

© Thomson Reuters 2009 All rights reserved

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