House Dems, White House pick up pace of talks on trade issues

Congressional Democrats say the White House is stepping up their discussions on the expanding trade agenda in hopes of gathering support for what are considered major pieces of the economic agenda. 

Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.) told The Hill on Wednesday that talks have picked up significantly in recent weeks, and included a sit-down with 40 lawmakers and White House chief of staff Denis McDonough of trade promotion authority (TPA) and issues surrounding pending trade deals, including the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

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Kind, chairman of the New Democrats and a member of the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Trade, said there was plenty of good feedback from lawmakers during Wednesday's meeting and that McDonough was "very clear" about President Obama wanting Democratic support for fast-track authority, which helps smooth passage of trade agreements through Congress.

To that end, U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman has been "living on Capitol Hill the past two weeks in endless meetings," Kind said.

"it's important because there has to be a real partnership between the White House and Congress on trade," Kind said. "We can do better with greater transparency and consultations, instead of being in the dark."

But he emphasized that talks are a two-way street and that members have to be equally engaged. 

So far, turnout for the trade chats has been better than expected and that has led to several constructive conversations.

He said White House officials have been very forthright during discussions that have included meetings on drug access, labor and environmental provisions in TPP.

Kind credited House Ways and Means ranking member Sander Levin (D-Mich.) for taking the lead to get Democrats and White House officials together. 

Levin has argued that Congress must be much more involved in every step of shaping trade deals, especially considering the high level of complexity as global trade has become further intertwined.

Since the TPA bill was introduced nearly a week ago, Levin, who does not back the measure, said the legislation needs to include specific language that ensures congressional involvement. 

Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) joined Levin in agreeing that input from Congress on trade is imperative to forging not only a good TPA bill but completing trade deals that can boost the U.S. economy and create jobs. 

So far, the meetings have been helpful and have provided insight into where negotiations stand on the trade deals and how important they are to the president and his jobs initiative, Meeks told The Hill. 

"Engagement has picked up pace," he said. 

He said the introduction of a TPA bill and a Senate Finance Committee hearing on the issue on Thursday has led to the ramped up the talks. 

"We can't do TPP without TPA passing," he said. 

"We need everyone's input and I look forward to the work of Ways and Means and I hope that TPA can be bipartisan," Meeks said. 

Lawmakers also are concerned about Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus's potential exit from Congress to become U.S. ambassador to China, a slot for which he was nominated last month. 

Baucus has said that TPA is among one of his top priorities.