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Senators in talks on approving trade nominees

By Doug Palmer

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Senators are working on a deal that could end the delay in approving two of President Barack Obama's trade nominees, a spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said on Friday.

"It is important that the president has his full team to address the many issues confronting the nation," Reid spokeswoman Regan Lachapelle said in an e-mail.

On Thursday, a coalition of more than 40 U.S. farm groups wrote Reid and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell to urge the swift confirmation of Michael Punke to be U.S. ambassador to the World Trade Organization and Isi Siddiqui to be chief U.S. agricultural trade negotiator.

"U.S. food and agriculture exports are under assault in many markets, with trading partners erecting even more barriers in recent months," the groups said, in an apparent nod to moves by Russia and Taiwan to bar U.S. meat products.

"The longer the delay in confirming Mr. Punke and Dr. Siddiqui, the more likely the U.S. loses exports and jobs," the farm groups said.

Punke would replace longtime U.S. trade diplomat Peter Allgeier, who stepped down in September, while Siddiqui would fill a slot vacant since Obama took office in January.

Some WTO members have said they view the U.S. delay in filling the key trade positions as a sign that the United States is not fully engaged in WTO talks.

Punke was a trade official during the administration of former President Bill Clinton and also worked as trade counsel to Senator Max Baucus, chairman of the Finance Committee.

Siddiqui, who worked at the U.S. Agriculture Department during the Clinton years, enjoys the strong support of major U.S. farm organization.

But groups representing small farmers and environmental groups say he is too closely tied to large chemical companies from his years as a vice president at CropLife America, an industry association.

Senator Jim Bunning, a Kentucky Republican, blocked the confirmation of another U.S. trade official for months to exert pressure on the Obama administration to take up a tobacco trade issue with Canada.

However, the Senate approved Miriam Sapiro to be deputy U.S. trade representative in December on a day that Bunning was absent for the vote.

U.S. industry officials say Bunning has now moved his hold to Punke and Siddiqui, meaning their nominations could be further delayed.

But Reid spokeswoman Lachapelle said Democrats were "working to get an agreement with Republicans to consider these and other nominations and hope to do so soon."

(Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton; Editing by Stacey Joyce)

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