By Doug Palmer
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Freshmen Senate Democrats asked on Monday for a role in crafting any new U.S. trade legislation, joining a similar push by their colleagues in the U.S. House of Representatives.
The move by the newly elected lawmakers is unusual because they traditionally defer to senior colleagues, and their request shows determination to translate last year's election victories into action on trade.
"Years of job-killing trade agreements are taking their toll on workers and small business owners alike," said Sen. Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democrat.
Brown and other so-called freshmen senators -- who were elected to the Senate for the first time last year -- ran campaigns that called for major changes in U.S. trade policy.They have asked for a meeting with Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, a Montana Democrat, to help craft a new direction for trade that gives Congress more control over pacts.
Baucus's committee is responsible for trade legislation. Other freshmen who requested the meeting include Sens. Benjamin Cardin of Maryland, Robert Casey of Pennsylvania, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Bernard Sanders of Vermont and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island.
"Of course, Chairman Baucus will sit down with colleagues who want to talk about the future of U.S. trade policy. That's his job as finance chairman," a Baucus aide said.
The expiration of the White House's fast track negotiating authority at the end of June, combined with concerns about job losses caused by the huge U.S. trade deficit, has put trade at the top of many lawmakers' agenda.
The White House wants a renewal of fast-track trade legislation -- also known as trade promotion authority -- to finish the 5-year-old Doha round of trade talks and pursue additional bilateral trade deals.
But many freshman lawmakers are wary of any new trade deals without tougher protections for workers and other conditions to ensure they cause American jobs to move overseas.Fast-track authority allows the White House to negotiate trade agreements that Congress must approve or reject without making changes.
Critics say lawmakers have too little influence over the outcome of trade deals and should have more say over which countries the United States picks for trade talks.
Freshman House members also have been pushing to have their voice heard as Congress considers whether to give Bush the authority to negotiate more trade deals.
Twenty-five freshmen met with House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel, a New York Democrat, and trade subcommittee Chairman Sander Levin, a Michigan Democrat, on Friday to discuss their trade concerns.
"We had a great meeting," Rep. Betty Sutton, an Ohio Democrat, said. "I'm confident Chairman Rangel and Chairman Levin are going to work with us to develop a comprehensive new trade policy that takes us in a different direction."Sutton said she believed most freshmen House members would vote against pending free trade agreements with Colombia, Peru and Panama unless changes are made to strengthen the labor provisions and other sections of the pacts.