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Biden acknowledges U.S. Democratic concerns on trade agenda

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden delivers a tribute during the National Memorial Service for Nelson Mandela at the National Cathedral in Washin
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden delivers a tribute during the National Memorial Service for Nelson Mandela at the National Cathedral in Washin

By Thomas Ferraro and Mark Felsenthal

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Vice President Joe Biden on Friday acknowledged concerns by fellow Democrats, including the top two in Congress, about President Barack Obama's free-trade agenda but defended the U.S. pursuit of a proposed pan-Pacific trade pact.

Biden met behind closed doors with House of Representatives Democrats as they wrapped up a three-day retreat in Cambridge, Maryland, saying he understands the political reality of their misgivings on free trade, according to a senior House Democratic aide who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Obama has asked Congress to approve fast-track negotiation authority that would enable his administration to speed up talks on two big free-trade pacts that would cover about two-thirds of the world's international trade: a pan-Pacific trading bloc and a U.S. agreement with the European Union.

Supporters of fast-track authority say trade partners will not put their best offers on the table unless they know the final agreement can be submitted to Congress for an up-or-down vote, without amendments.

Some Democrats fear the fast-track authority could lead to trade deals that could hurt local jobs and industry and could cost them support in November's congressional elections.

Harry Reid, the top Democrat in the Senate, and Nancy Pelosi, the senior House Democrat, both have spoken out against the fast-track proposal before Congress.

"While the vice president said he understands where some members of the House and Senate are coming from, he made a clear case for the administration's trade priorities, including the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations, which he stated are very much in the economic and strategic interest of the U.S.," Biden's office said in a statement.

A senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said, "It is still very much our goal to complete a TPP agreement this year."

"I would not in any way suggest that we're walking back from our commitment to TPP. We very much want to get that done, we've communicated that to Congress," the official said.

"There's a question as to how we work with Congress going forward, to sequence our pursuit of (fast track) and the TPP agreement," the official added.

After the New York Times reported that the vice president acknowledged that Congress will not grant fast-track trade authority, Biden's office said that press accounts of his comments on trade were inaccurate.

The Democratic aide said that "nothing Biden said could be construed as meaning that (fast track) is dead." Paraphrasing the comments, the aide said Biden told the Democratic lawmakers that he gets the "political reality" of concerns about the Pacific trade pact but that "we're still fighting for it."

After the session with Biden, lawmakers met with Obama where the focus was on the botched rollout of the president's signature healthcare law.

LITMUS TEST

Fast-track authority is seen as a litmus test of political support for free-trade deals, which have been opposed by some of Obama's power bases - unions, environmentalists and consumer groups concerned about lost jobs and weaker labor and pollution restrictions.

Pelosi on Wednesday told a union rally she opposed the fast-track legislation now before Congress.

Pelosi, who voted against the most recent fast-track bill before the House but has supported some free-trade deals in the past, said she was not rejecting Obama's trade agenda but opposed the fast-track bill's current form.

Her opposition followed a warning on January 29 by Reid, the Senate majority leader, not to push the fast-track measure.

In his State of the Union address on January 28, Obama asked Congress for fast-track authority. But Reid said the next day he was "against fast track" and urged a slow approach to trade talks, adding, "I think that everyone would be well advised just to not push this right now."

After Reid announced his opposition, top House Republicans called on Obama to "get his own party in line" behind the fast-track trade negotiation authority.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell on Friday questioned Obama's seriousness on free trade.

"With our economy in such dire straits these days, opening new opportunities for American goods through trade should just be a no-brainer. It's an issue that used to be fairly bipartisan around here, and it can be again - if the president is willing to lead," McConnell said in a statement.

(Additional reporting by Steve Holland; Writing by Will Dunham; Editing by Caren Bohan and Lisa Shumaker)

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