House Republicans are holding strong on their support for the Keystone XL oil pipeline, pushing for the transcontinental project to be included in a key transportation bill scheduled to be hashed out between Senate and House negotiators in the coming weeks.
If the final "highway bill" emerges intact with the pipeline provision, it will set up a showdown with President Obama, who has threatened to veto the measure if it includes Keystone.
"The Keystone pipeline would create some 20,000 jobs immediately and ... over a hundred thousand indirect jobs as a result," said House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, on Wednesday. "As we go to conference [with the Senate] on the highway bill with the Keystone pipeline attached to it, I think it's time for the Senate to get serious about the need to expand American energy production."
The House on Wednesday voted to send negotiators to a conference committee with the Senate to draft a final transportation bill. The upper chamber approved its conferees a day earlier. The committee likely will commence after Congress returns from a weeklong break May 7.
Keystone would bring oil from the tar sands of Alberta, Canada, to the Gulf Coast. It has strong support from both business and labor groups but is opposed by leading environmentalist groups.
House Republicans have pressed to include the Keystone measure in the transportation bill, while most Democrats in both chambers are adamant on leaving it out, saying it's an unrelated issue.
A transportation bill with a Keystone provision would force the president into a politically precarious corner: veto the bill and risk halting federally funded transportation projects and jobs, or go back on his word and accept a controversial pipeline he has insisted needs more review.
The Senate in March easily passed a $109 billion bipartisan plan to keep federal highway and transit programs running for another two years. The measure didn't include Keystone.
But the move stalled in the House, where Republicans rejected their leadership's five-year, $260 billion version. The chamber was forced late last month to pass a 90-day temporary funding extension in order to avert an end-of-March shutdown of federal transportation projects.
House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman John L. Mica, Florida Republican, said there is widespread support in the House for Keystone, but he stopped short of insisting it be included in the final legislation.
"A lot of the members on both sides of the aisle are supportive of making certain that's part of whatever we come up with," Mr. Mica told reporters Wednesday.
"We're going to fight and work to see that we get as many big provisions (in the transportation bill) as possible. We're rolling up our sleeves."
But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, on Tuesday said "Keystone is a program that we're not going - that I'm not going - to help in any way I can."
One Democrat named to the conference committee, Sen. Max Baucus, supports Keystone and could be an ally to Republicans pressing to include the provision in the final bill. But the Montana lawmaker, in a statement released through his office, has tamped down such assumptions.
"No one is a bigger supporter of the Keystone pipeline than Sen. Baucus, and he is looking for every opportunity to help move the project forward," the statement said. "But Sen. Baucus will not put more than one million American jobs supported by the highway bill in jeopardy unless he's sure whatever Keystone measure proposed has the legs to pass Congress, be signed into law, and stand up to legal scrutiny, so we don't end up delaying the project even further by getting it tied up in the courts."
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