* Not enough Senate votes to end debate on highway bill
* McConnell: deal near for vote on Keystone, other
* Keystone vote would stoke debate on gasoline prices
By David Lawder
WASHINGTON, March 6 U.S. Senate
Republicans' push for a vote to authorize the $7 billion
Keystone XL oil pipeline project gained momentum on Tuesday
after Democrats failed to end debate on a major transportation
Fifty-two senators, most of them Democrats, voted to move
forward on the $160 billion highway bill without a proposed
Republican amendment to authorize construction of the
Canada-to-Texas pipeline, eight votes short of the 60 needed to
The defeat gave Republicans a new opening to attack
President Barack Obama for rejecting TransCanada Corp's
project, as soaring gasoline prices become a top issue for
voters ahead of the November presidential election.
A vote on Keystone faces an uphill battle in the Senate but
would likely turn the highway bill into another battle over
gasoline prices and job creation.
Senate Majority leader Harry Reid now must negotiate further
with Republicans on a deal to hold a stand-alone vote on the
controversial project and potentially dozens of other
amendments. Senate aides said amendments should be ready for
initial votes by Wednesday with final passage later this week.
"I don't know why everything we do has to be a fight. Not a
disagreement, a fight," Reid said before the vote.
Among proposals under consideration for possible votes are an
expansion of offshore oil drilling opportunities, slower
phase-ins of some Environmental Protection Agency clean air
rules and changes that would allow companies to set aside less
money for their pension programs.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said an agreement
was near and that Democrats made many of their own demands to
attach provisions to the bill.
"We were both wrestling with trying to put together a
package that would allow us to move forward," he said after the
Senate Republicans last week used the "must-pass"
legislation to try unsuccessfully to push through an amendment
that would have reversed Obama's policy requiring health
insurance coverage for contraceptives and other services by
allowing employers to opt out for religious or moral reasons.
GAS PRICE PLATFORM
Environmental groups have fought the Keystone project, which
would connect Canada's oil sands to U.S. Gulf Coast refineries,
because of the pollution produced by the heavy oil sands crude.
Some Democrats support the project. But there are currently
47 Republicans in the Senate, meaning at least 13 Democrats
would have to agree to move it forward.
Obama threw the project into limbo in January because he
said his administration needed more time to evaluate the
environmental impact of the pipeline's route through Nebraska.
In the meantime, TransCanada has said it will split the
project in two and build the southern leg between the Cushing,
Oklahoma storage hub and Texas refineries.
The Senate amendment - which would require Obama's signature
to become law - would bypass Obama and see Congress approve the
project. A study by the nonpartisan Congressional Research
Service said Congress has the constitutional right to legislate
permits for cross-border pipelines.
The Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives has
passed an energy bill that would see an independent energy
regulator give the project a permit.
Obama has said he would veto that bill because of the
Keystone measure as well as other provisions that would expand
oil drilling in sensitive areas.
The $109 billion Senate transport bill would fund highway
and mass-transit construction projects for two years. The
current legislation expires March 31, and if no action is taken
by then, road project funding and collection of federal gasoline
taxes would be halted, with potential layoffs of hundreds of
thousands of road construction workers.
The House has yet to pass its version of the transport
legislation, which currently is much larger, at $260 billion,
and more complex. House Speaker John Boehner said on Tuesday
that he may be willing to take up the Senate bill instead.