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The White House effort to gin up support for President Obama's trade agenda and Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) in Congress is still in a preliminary phase of trying to sway trade skeptics and has not yet advanced to the point of counting votes, members of the congressional New Democrat Coalition indicated on Wednesday (Feb. 11).

After a closed-door meeting on Capitol Hill with White House National Economic Council (NEC) Chairman Jeff Zients, New Democrat Chairman Ron Kind (D-WI) and Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-NY) characterized the initiative that Zients is spearheading to build support for TPA as “outreach” and an “information effort.”

“I don't know if you'd call it a 'whipping effort,' but certainly outreach,” Kind told Inside U.S .Trade. “You're just seeing a much higher level of engagement by the administration from the president on down -- Cabinet secretaries, to [Zients] and his team now, too.”

Rep. Scott Peters (D-CA) and Meeks said the meeting with Zients was largely focused on trade policy in addition to other aspects of Obama's economic agenda, which Meeks said included infrastructure and tax policy. Although both declined to offer specifics about Zients' message, Peters indicated that the NEC chairman intoned many of the same points Obama made on trade in last month's State of the Union address.

Meeks also cautioned against labeling the White House initiative a whip operation, dubbing it an “information effort” aimed at countering notions advanced by critics that TPA gives away congressional power or that the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is a repeat of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

He acknowledged that the administration is already facing declarations by a majority of House Democratic freshmen in opposition to TPA, and attributed this in part to a lack of “information” on the issues from the administration and others TPA supporters to date. Meeks expressed confidence that this was a pattern that could start to be reversed in light of the new White House engagement.

“These are freshmen. They've never voted on this before, and that's before they've gotten information,” Meeks said. “So the information was not getting out, in my opinion, in the way or the manner that it should have been. That is what's being fixed now: get the free flow of information out there … so that members can articulate those things to their constituents.”

As part of this effort, Meeks said, the administration is trying to put the word out in Congress that lawmakers can view the draft text of the TPP to gain a sense of what is in it -- and how it is different from NAFTA. Meeks added, however, that it is difficult for the administration to count votes in support of TPA renewal legislation or the TPP agreement as a TPA bill has not yet been introduced and the negotiations have not been finalized.

Whether this transparency push will reassure skeptics is unclear. Some skeptical lawmakers, such as Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-TX) have acknowledged that members can view the texts but complained that they are not able to have their personal expert staff accompany them or take notes.

House Ways & Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Ranking Member Sander Levin (D-MI) are pressing the executive branch<safari-reader://> to give Congress more access to negotiating texts, and Ryan said last week he expects this issue to be resolved by the time he releases a bill to renew Trade Promotion Authority (TPA). A congressional source said this issue would likely be dealt with in the TPA bill Ryan is expected to introduced with other lawmakers in the coming weeks.

Meeks also signaled that a part of the campaign by the administration will involve President Obama making the case for trade more broadly in public speeches around the country.

“The president himself will be going out, traveling across to Middle America, to talk to them about why this is important to get done and how this helps them and their families,” Meeks said. “The president will be aggressively going out and talking to people in that regard.”

But despite the White House putting out the message that President Obama is fully engaged on trade and reaching out to lawmakers, some sources say it is proving harder than expected to sway Democrats, particularly in the House. This is partially due to the fact that the Democratic caucus is heavily dominated by left-of-center members, since many centrist Democrats have lost their elections over the past three cycles, one source noted.

Nobody in that camp has come out in favor of TPA or TPP, which means these members have no political “cover” for a pro-TPA or pro-TPP vote, according to the source. In addition, the Democratic leadership, including Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD), has taken a hands-off approach and is unlikely to whip these trade initiatives.

The Zients meeting with the New Democrats came one day after Obama's Feb. 10 meeting with members of the Congressional Black Caucus at the White House. A White House readout of that meeting highlighted trade as part of a “wide range of topics” discussed at that meeting, and said that Obama asked for the caucus' support on the issue while noting how it would “provide new opportunities for workers and support economic growth by opening markets, enforcing high-standards in our agreements, and leveling the playing field for our workers.”

The New Democrats are aiming to garner 40 House Democrats to vote for a new TPA bill, including by securing 24 votes from within their 45-member coalition.

Some, like Peters, are still undecided, although he said he felt the administration is doing the “right things” by engaging with Congress and taking enforcement actions. On the enforcement front, he specifically cited the consultations the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative requested on Wednesday with China at the World Trade Organization over alleged prohibited export subsidies.

Zients since December has been leading a Cabinet-level operation aimed at reaching out to Democratic lawmakers perceived as gettable votes, outside interest groups and former government officials