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WH, Senate Dems at odds over trade policy

A gulf between top White House officials and several Senate Democrats over the direction of U.S. trade policy was brought to the fore Thursday. 

Top administration officials touted trade's benefits with a new export report and the unveiling of expanded plans to help rural businesses reach more markets outside the United States. 

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Meanwhile, a group of senators — seven Democrats and one independent — argued on the floor that they aren't yet convinced that trade will lead to more job creation and boost workers' paychecks. 

President Obama and his Cabinet have taken an aggressive tack in seeking support from skeptical Democrats for trade promotion authority (TPA), which will streamline the passage of trade deals on Capitol Hill, and the broader trade agenda. 

But Democrats in both chambers have expressed their concerns that passing fast-track authority will ultimately lead to bad trade agreements that will hurt U.S. workers.

"Five of the top 10 markets for U.S. products are in Asia and that's why it is so important to continue working on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and getting trade promotion authority from Congress," said Agriculture Secretary Tom VilsackThomas J. VilsackUSDA: Farm-to-school programs help schools serve healthier meals OVERNIGHT MONEY: House poised to pass debt-ceiling bill MORE in a call with reporters. 

The United States and the 11 other TPP nations "must set the rules of the road for the future for trade in Asia so we don't cede ground to China," he said.

Efforts are ongoing on Capitol Hill to reach agreement on a TPA bill, while expectations are for negotiators to wrap up work on the TPP sometime this spring.

“The talent and tenacity of American workers hasn’t changed — but our leaders’ commitment to them has," said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) in a floor speech. "And nowhere is that abandonment more clear than the free trade agreements we now approve with little oversight and minimal debate."

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) said he isn't happy with the process either and that the TPP talks have been held behind closed doors and even away from the eyes of lawmakers. 

"It is secret. We are kept out of it," he said.

"Who’s in it are a lot of really big corporations and they are up to no good in a lot of these deals."

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) argued that if the United States wants to lead the world in creating good jobs, "we must develop a new set of trade policies, which work for the ordinary American worker and not for large corporations and big campaign donors,” he said. 

“We need to create decent-paying jobs in this country for a change and not just in other countries around the world,” he said.

But the administration said the campaign continues to convince lawmakers that the numbers are in trade's favor. 

In fact, Vilsack said there is a newly launched effort to supply state-by-state fact sheets with TPP's benefits. 

Overall, 26 states set new records for exports last year and the U.S. reached its fifth straight record year of exports, ringing up $2.35 trillion, according to the report released Thursday.

Commerce Department Deputy Secretary Bruce Andrews said he sees “substantial benefits” from TPP and that the president has made a “very compelling case that we write the trade rules in Asia.”

He said those figures should be very appealing to many Democrats.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post on Thursday expressing serious concerns about provisions she said would allow foreign companies to challenge U.S. laws, also took the floor to make her point.

“The Investor-State Dispute Settlement provision, buried in the fine print of the TPP, would tilt the playing field further in favor of big multinational corporations and undermine U.S. sovereignty,” Warren said.

“ISDS allows foreign companies to challenge American laws without ever stepping foot in an American court. This isn’t a partisan issue: conservatives, libertarians and progressives can agree that giving foreign corporations special rights to challenge our laws outside of our legal system is a bad deal."

Her op-ed drew a response from Jeff Zients, director of the National Economic Council, who said in a blog post that "ISDS has come under criticism because of some legitimate complaints about poorly written agreements."

"The U.S. shares some of those concerns, and agrees with the need for new, higher standards, stronger safeguards and better transparency provisions," he said.

"Through TPP and other agreements, that is exactly what we are putting in place."

Meanwhile, as the debate rages over TPA and TPP, the Obama administration announced a set of new executive actions that will help rural businesses boost their exports. 

Vilsack said they have moved toward solutions for those businesses that face unique challenges, such as custom uncertainties, accessing capital and even a lack of decent infrastructure to carry their goods to markets.