President Bush and the U.S. Congress are locked into a battle over Mexican trucking. The issue is whether or not to grant Mexican trucks full access to American roads, as required under the North American Free Trade Agreement. The controversy is sure to be high on the agenda when Mexican President Vicente Fox comes to the White House for a state visit on September 5.

It is a big issue for President Bush, and one he takes very personally as the former governor of a border state and a proponent of free trade. "There are some people who say we shouldn't allow our friends to the south to send their trucks into the United States," Mr. Bush says. "I say that is discrimination against Mexico."

The President has often said he is looking for common ground with members of Congress. But he uses strong words to describe those who say Mexican trucks pose a threat to public safety and should be barred from American roads. "To the protectionists and isolationists I say if Mexican trucks, United States trucks and Canadian trucks are allowed to move freely on our highways," he said, "we can not only enforce the laws, it will help prosperity spread its roots throughout our neighborhood."

The U.S. House of Representatives has voted to retain a near-total ban on Mexican trucks outside the immediate border area. The Senate has taken a slightly less restrictive approach, but would still impose strict security and insurance standards. Congressional negotiators must now draft a compromise bill. And President Bush has vowed to veto any legislation that he believes undercuts promises made under NAFTA.

Supporters of the ban say they have the votes in Congress to override Mr. Bush. Leading the crusade is the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the union, which represents many American truck drivers. Rob Black is a spokesman for the Teamsters. "The Teamsters have opposed giving unsafe Mexican trucks free access to our highways because there is a lack of safety standards in Mexico," he said. "And the U.S. does not have sufficient resources at the border crossing points to ensure safety."

Mr. Black says U.S. Department of Transportation statistics show Mexican trucks could pose a safety threat. "Of four million truck crossings last year, only one percent was inspected for safety," he said. "Of that one-percent that were inspected last year, 37 percent of those failed their inspections."

But experts in cross-border commerce say the arguments put forward by the Teamsters are flawed. Jim Giermanski, a professor at Belmont Abbey College in North Carolina, says the union is citing statistics for the older short-haul Mexican trucks that are used in the border area. He says long distance trucking companies use newer, better-maintained vehicles that rival the safety records of fleets from the United States and Canada. "It has been absolutely distorted," Mr. Giermanski said. "And I don't know why it is so blatantly distorted by the unions."

Mr. Giermanski has been studying interest among long-haul Mexican trucking companies in the U.S. market. He says only a few want to do business beyond the border. "There are so many mechanical, legal and regulatory obstacles to Mexican motor carriers to operate in the U.S. that the likelihood of their operating here is minimal," he said.

Jim Giermanski poses a question: if few long haul trucks will cross the border why are emotions so high on this issue? He notes the Teamsters want to organize workers in Mexico, where foreign unions are banned and could be using truck access as a bargaining chip.

Union spokesman Rob Black acknowledges Teamsters President James P. Hoffa met with Vicente Fox about a month ago to discuss the matter. "Certainly, our brothers and sisters in Mexico deserve real unions," he says.

President Bush also makes clear this fight is about more than just access for Mexican trucks. Professor Giermanski says the President believes America made a promise under NAFTA and that promise must be kept. "It is very clear we breached this contract. We haven't done what is ethical. And I think, no matter what you say about the president, that he does operate on some principles," says Mr. Giermanski. "And I think this issue is not just about business as usual. It is an issue of principle, especially with a neighbor like Mexico, especially with his background as governor of Texas."

Congress returns from its long August recess about the same time President Bush welcomes Vicente Fox to the White House. Negotiations on the trucking issue are expected to be a priority for both the legislature and the Bush administration in the days that follow.