* Millions of jobs at stake during election year
* Monday night: meetings on possible deal
* Might need brief extension to finish work on bill
* Unclear whether deal addresses Keystone pipeline
By Roberta Rampton and Richard Cowan
WASHINGTON, June 25 Senators involved in
marathon talks on a two-year deal for funding U.S. road, bridge
and rail projects said on Monday they were close to a compromise
with House Republicans, although they might need to work through
a Friday deadline to finish negotiations.
They declined to talk about specifics, or address whether
the potential deal would include a measure to approve the
Canada-to-Texas Keystone XL oil pipeline, which has been a major
"We've just made some major breakthroughs and I feel very
good about it," Republican Senator James Inhofe told reporters
on Capitol Hill, noting meetings continued on Monday night.
"We've got five days to go and I think we're going to do it.
I really feel optimistic we're going to have a shot at this,"
said Inhofe, the top Senate Republican on the negotiating panel.
Federal funding for transportation projects expires on
Saturday. As many as 3 million jobs hinge on the legislation,
and failure to pass it would have a direct impact on the economy
ahead of the Nov. 6 general election.
Democratic Senator Jay Rockefeller said a short-term
extension of current funding might be needed to allow lawmakers
to wrap up technical details in the bill.
"If we can get something wrapped up tonight, then you've got
to write it all and that takes at least a week," Rockefeller
Republicans in the House of Representatives are insisting
that fast-track approval for TransCanada's Keystone
pipeline be part of a transportation funding bill.
Environmental groups have fought the project that would
carry crude from Canada to refineries in Texas because they
worry about the pollution created by Canada's oilsands and
potential spills from the line.
"We strongly support responsible highway reforms to cut
permitting time in half, reduce duplicative federal programs,
and ensure taxpayer dollars are spent wisely, as well as
job-creating energy initiatives like Keystone," said Kevin
Smith, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner.
Talks that ran straight through the weekend had yielded
glimmers of compromise on some sticking points in the proposed
two-year, $109 billion transportation package.
Democratic negotiators had offered concessions on Republican
demands to streamline environmental reviews for certain types of
road projects, and also offered a possible compromise to ease
proposed environmental regulations for coal ash, a byproduct of
coal-fired power plants used in cement.
But senators did not want to talk about Keystone, one of the
last topics to be addressed by negotiators.
"I think there's some trade-offs that are being talked
about. I'm not going to say what they are exactly," said Kay
Bailey Hutchinson, a Republican senator from Texas, who declined
to say whether the pipeline was one of them.
Negotiators have considered adding to the highway bill a
deal to avoid a July 1 doubling of interest rates for federal
That measure could be wrapped in with a short-term highway
extension, but would likely be considered separately if
negotiators reach a longer-term transportation deal, Hutchison
Senate negotiators have sought to keep Keystone out of the
bill, and have discussed ways to hold a separate vote on the
pipeline, a senior Senate Democratic aide said.
"We're still hopeful that we can work something out," the
The Keystone measure has passed in the House four times, but
narrowly failed a Senate vote in March.
The White House has said President Barack Obama would veto a
bill that overrides his decision this year to block the
pipeline, pending further environmental study.
If the Senate and House cannot agree on the broad bill, they
will likely push to pass a short-term extension of current
funding. Boehner had floated a six-month extension this month.
Stop-gap funding would keep construction jobs going,
although it may put the brakes on some long-term projects.