WASHINGTON - Amid increasing U.S. trade protectionism, Canada's premiers will get a moment in the spotlight at the influential National Governors' Association winter meeting, a gathering that often serves as a guiding policy light for both Congress and the White House.

Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall is co-hosting an event during the meeting entitled Common Border, Common Ground, focusing on touchy Canada-U.S. issues that include trade, border security and energy. It's the first-ever meeting between the association and its Canadian counterpart, the Council of the Federation.

"This historic meeting between NGA and COF is an opportunity to build lasting relationships," reads the invitation from Wall and Jim Douglas, governor of Vermont and chairman of the association. It goes on to "strongly encourage" all governors to attend the Feb. 20 event.

Most of Canada's premiers, including Ontario's Dalton McGuinty and Quebec's Jean Charest, have confirmed they will be in attendance, an organizer said. Others are expected to follow suit in the weeks to come.

The news comes as Congress moved Friday to further toughen the so-called Buy American provisions in the US$787 billion economic stimulus package that have served as a major trade irritant between the United States and Canada for months.

Lawmakers introduced legislation to tighten the Buy American rules to help foster U.S. job growth amid double-digit inflation. It aims to put a stop to the use of waivers to get around the rules, and is backed by several powerful U.S. labour unions.

Canada has been pushing without success for an exemption from the Buy American provisions.

Amid this tense atmosphere, one expert on Canada-U.S. relations called it "really significant and really positive" that the governors have extended an invitation to Canada's premiers.

"The winter NGA meeting is an anchor on the Washington policy-making schedule -- it matters; it's a big deal," Maryscott Greenwood, executive director of the Canadian-American Business Council, said Friday.

"Because governors have such a huge influence on Congress and the administration, when governors choose to act collectively, their voices are absolutely heard in Washington. Lots of groups try to figure out how they can impact the agenda of the NGA, and that's very hard thing to do. It requires governors to personally want to include you and your issues."

Regional premiers and governors often get together to discuss common issues, but it's unprecedented for all governors and premiers to sit down in a formal setting at such a prestigious event in the U.S. capital.

It's likely an event custom-made for Gary Doer, Canada's new ambassador to the United States. One of Doer's strengths as Manitoba premier was forging strong ties with neighbouring governors.

"He's a guy who really knows how to work governors; this is a nice gift to Doer, he'll be able to maximize it," Greenwood predicted.