House Dems ramping up engagement on trade

House Democratic leaders said Tuesday that they are shifting their attention to the substance of pending trade deals rather than how agreements might move across Capitol Hill. 

House Minority Leader Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiPelosi: 'I'm not counting Joe Biden out' Short defends Trump's tweets as a 'very effective way' to communicate with Americans Democrats fear rule of law crumbling under Trump MORE (D-Calif.) said that a series of educational meetings with top White House officials are aimed at providing Democrats with more details about the developing Asia-Pacific agreement amid widespread concerns about trade's effect on U.S. workers and wages. 

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"I was really determined that today would be a meeting that focused completely on the trade issue so that we could stay on our schedule of having a deep dig into the substance, into the policy of the legislation,” Pelosi told reporters on Tuesday after the caucus meeting.

The trade issue has pitted Democrats against the White House as congressional lawmakers press forward on crafting trade promotion authority (TPA) legislation, which would streamline passage of the deals on Capitol Hill.

Pelosi said that if President Obama wants fast-track then "let us find out what TPA is for."

She that while she wants to find a path to “yes” on fast-track and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) that "it’s a difficult path." 

Rep. Sander Levin (Mich.), ranking member on the House Ways and Means Committee, reiterated his long-held stance that lawmakers should focus on the substance of the TPP and not how to fast-track the deals through Congress.

Levin called the Tuesday meeting a “kickoff” for the Democratic caucus to deep dive into the contents of the trade deal that covers 40 percent of the world's economic growth, which will eventually determine the legislative process.

Lawmakers and the White House are focusing more on the TPP because a deal expected some time this spring.

Pelosi has urged her members keep their powder dry on trade as they learn more about the TPP and another deal with the European Union.

She argued that exploring TPP's contents over the next few weeks will allow Democrats to find areas of agreement with the White House and where they want to make changes.

"We have an opportunity to make it better," Pelosi said. 

"I believe that the administration is very receptive to that," she said.

Still, she reminded that trade deals should promote the nation's economic interests but not "at the expense of American workers, which has happened in the past."

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said Tuesday that he supports Pelosi's approach of educating members and fielding their concerns in search of an agreement with the White House.

But, citing "a lot of concerns" in the caucus, he also said he hasn't seen any indication that liberal skeptics are becoming more receptive to the emerging deals.

"There are a lot of concerns, and I think that the leader, in conjunction with the leadership, is trying to construct a process where members would feel more comfortable that at least they know the facts," Hoyer said.

"I don't think I see any member movement, at this point in time," he added. "[But] what the leader wants to do is to make sure that people do go through this process so when they make up their minds, they make up their minds based upon facts."

Levin said that Tuesday's meeting included a broad range of discussions about currency manipulation, the investor-state dispute process as well as worker rights issues in Vietnam and Mexico. 

He said members don’t want to give up their leverage up until they know what’s in the TPP package and what needs to be changed.

Trade supporters argue that without the other 11 nations in the TPP, including Mexico, Japan and Canada, won't sign onto an agreement that could be changed on Capitol Hill.

Those opposed to fast-track say that the process would force Congress to rubber stamp potentially bad agreements that would lead to more job losses for middle-class Americans.

Labor unions such as the AFL-CIO have been out in force on the issue, waging a battle against fast-track.

Pelosi said impatience of some Democrats to have access to the trade deal text is "legitimate" but acknowledged that the administration is making details available.

She also tamped down other Democratic concerns about classified meetings saying that “we can get over that."

Since U.S. Trade Representative took over in June 2013, the trade staff has held nearly 1,700 meetings on Capitol Hill, a majority with Democrats, to answer questions about the TPP and another trade agreement with the European Union.

But Democrats opposed to trade promotion authority say the Obama administration is still being too secretive about the the details of the agreements.

Over the next few weeks Democrats are expected to meet with a wide range of administration officials from Treasury Secretary Jack Lew to top labor leaders.

Addressing the Democrats on Tuesday were James Hoffa, head of the Teamsters union; Larry Cohen, president of the Communications Workers of America; and Jared Bernstein, former economics adviser to Vice President Joe Biden. 

Mike Lillis contributed. 

This story was updated at 1:15 p.m.