WASHINGTON President Barack Obama's bid to end a costly and politically sensitive border trucking dispute with Mexico has divided the Houston-area congressional delegation, with most local lawmakers either opposed to or skeptical of a deal to expand Mexican truck traffic in the U.S.

Opponents of increased Mexican truck traffic, ranging from liberal Democrats to conservative Republicans, cite safety and security as reasons to proceed with caution, if at all.

I have serious concerns over the ability to hold Mexican trucks to the same (safety) standards as those licensed and operating in the United States, says Rep. Ted Poe, R-Humble.

The 1993 North American Free Trade Agreement opened the door to a deal allowing Mexican 18-wheelers to deliver Mexican produce and manufactured goods more than 25 miles into the United States. But Congress blocked any long-haul Mexican trucking in the U.S. a year ago by refusing to fund a pilot program implemented by former President George W. Bush. Mexico retaliated by slapping punitive duties on 90 targeted American agricultural and manufactured goods.

Business groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have stepped up lobbying to end a standoff they say has cost American companies an estimated $2.6 billion in lost exports, claimed more than 25,000 jobs and boosted exporters' costs by $2.2 billion.

The current situation is unsustainable, said Chamber vice president John Murphy. On trade, when we stand still we fall behind.

But many Texas lawmakers aren't prepared to accept a deal if it involves increasing Mexican trucking traffic inside the U.S.

Rep. Gene Green, D-Houston, does support a resolution of the situation but not by allowing Mexican trucks to operate in the United States, says Green spokesman Timothy Merritt.

Houston Democrat Sheila Jackson Lee and Houston Republican John Culberson say they'd be willing to consider a deal on Mexican trucks under certain circumstances.

I certainly believe there should be a forward-thinking agreement, said Jackson Lee. However, it should be balanced so that the U.S. is a beneficiary of safe and secure trucks coming across the border.

Culberson said he'd only support an agreement if the Obama administration can get Mexico to abide by these (safety) regulations in an expeditious manner.

Yet other Texans are just as vigorously backing the quest for a deal by U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk, a former mayor of Dallas. Kirk told an audience at the National Press Club last week that administration officials understand the sense of urgency among Texas and California business interests.

Rep. Kevin Brady, R-The Woodlands, a free trade advocate on the Joint House-Senate Economic Committee and the House Ways and Means Committee, urged a quick deal.

With unemployment nearly 10 percent, America needs to increase U.S. exports and create jobs not create new barriers that make American exports less competitive, Brady said.

The United States must uphold its bilateral trade obligations with Mexico, including steps to permit reciprocal operations by long-haul trucks, added Rep. Pete Olson, R-Sugar Land.

Texas manufacturers and producers have been negatively affected by Mexican tariffs, including nearly $1 billion on agricultural products ranging from onions grown in Texas to lettuce, grapes and citrus grown in California. A deal is needed quickly to provide relief to our farmers and manufacturers affected by the retaliatory tariffs, Olson added.

Despite the truck dispute, land trade between the United States and Mexico by rail and truck and pipeline amounted to $23 billion in December alone nearly a 16 percent increase over the previous year.

Some Houston business leaders think Mexican trucks should be allowed to travel U.S. highways.

We think it's a bogus issue, Jeff Moseley, president and CEO of the Greater Houston Partnership, said to the Houston Chronicle's editorial board last week.

Many of the trucks that cross the busy Laredo bridges travel to and from the Port of Houston and that's why many Houston leaders want to allow Mexican 18-wheelers into the United States.

We are committed that we need to solve the issue, said Jose Antonio Torre, chief intelligence officer for Mexican business organization ProMexico, during the meeting at the Chronicle.

Reporter Jenalia Moreno contributed to this story.

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