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Kerry downplays key U.S. senator's opposition on trade talks

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry attends the annual Munich Security Conference February 1, 2014. REUTERS/Lukas Barth
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry attends the annual Munich Security Conference February 1, 2014. REUTERS/Lukas Barth

By Will Dunham

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Secretary of State John Kerry said on Saturday Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's opposition to President Barack Obama's push for authority to fast-track trade deals should not stand in the way of U.S. congressional passage of the measure.

Reid, a Democrat, is the senior member of Obama's party in Congress. On Wednesday, Reid said he was "against fast track" and urged a slow approach to trade negotiations.

"Look, I respect Harry Reid. I've worked with him for a long time, obviously," Kerry, a former U.S. senator, said during remarks at a security conference in Munich.

"I've heard plenty of statements in the Senate on one day that are categorical, and we've wound up finding accommodation and a way to find our way forward. So this should not be a deterrent, and I hope nobody will let it stand in the way," Kerry added.

In his State of the Union address on Tuesday, Obama asked for fast-track trade negotiation authority. Legislation before the House of Representatives and Senate would grant the White House power to submit free trade deals to Congress for an up-or-down vote, without amendments.

This authority would allow the Obama administration to speed up the negotiations for two massive 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.

"I think that everyone would be well-advised just to not push this right now," Reid said on Wednesday.

Kerry on Saturday said that "there's a lot of room here still" despite Reid's comments. Also in Munich, another member of Obama's Cabinet, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, underscored Kerry's comments on trade.

"I would hope that this would get done by the United States Senate. It's clearly in everyone's interest," said Hagel, also a former member of the Senate.

"Let's be smart and let's be wise and let's be collaborative and use all of the opportunities and mechanisms that we have to enhance each other - culturally, trade, commerce, exchanges," the Pentagon chief added.

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.

Top Republicans in the House of Representatives on Thursday called on Obama to "get his own party in line" behind the fast-track trade negotiation authority.

House Speaker John Boehner complained about Reid's stance, saying it would hinder passage of a measure that Obama and many Republicans contend would spur exports and job growth.

(Reporting by Will Dunham; Editing by Dan Grebler)

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