By ALAN FRAM and JOAN LOWY, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — Facing weekend deadlines for action, congressional leaders have agreed to deals overhauling the nation's transportation programs without a Republican provision forcing approval of the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline, and avoiding a doubling of interest rates for new student loans, congressional officials said Wednesday.
The agreements underscored the pressures both parties face to avoid angry voters and embarrassing headlines in the run-up to this November's presidential and congressional elections. Letting road-building programs grind to a halt during an economic downturn would be a blow to the image of lawmakers, while Democrats and Republicans alike seemed eager to avoid enraging millions of students and their parents by boosting the costs of college loans.
In contrast, enactment of the transportation measure would create or save 3 million jobs, said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., chief sponsor of the Senate version of the bill. And the student loan measure would spare an estimated 7.4 million students who get subsidized Stafford loans beginning July 1 — this Sunday — from facing $1,000 in higher interest costs over the lives of their loans, which typically take over a decade to repay.
Congressional leaders were planning to combine the highway and student loan measures into a single bill to reduce potential procedural obstacles and hoped for final approval this week. Lawmakers would then leave Washington for a July 4 recess.
The two-year highway bill would prevent the government's authority to spend money on highways, bridges and transit systems from lapsing on Saturday, along with its ability to collect gasoline and diesel taxes. With both parties checkmating each other's top priorities this campaign season, Democrats and Republicans say the highway measure will be Congress' top job-creation initiative until the November elections.
"This is the jobs bill for the 112th Congress," said House Transportation Committee Chairman John Mica, R-Fla.
As the price for the highway agreement, lawmakers said Republicans dropped a House-approved provision requiring the government to approve the proposed Keystone pipeline, which is to move oil from western Canada to Texas' Gulf Coast.
Pipeline approval — which prompted a veto threat from President Barack Obama — has been a top goal this election year for the GOP, which has pitted its claims that it would create jobs against environmental worries that it could accelerate global warming and endanger Midwestern water supplies.
Republicans also agreed to abandon language blocking the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating the toxic ash generated by coal-fired power plants, lawmakers said. The ash is used as an ingredient in some types of cement.
In return, House Republicans won Senate concessions that would halve the time allowed for environmental reviews for highway projects, and squeeze money for bike paths and pedestrian safety projects by forcing them to compete with other transportation projects, said congressional aides and environmental lobbyists.
The bill would give states more flexibility in spending federal money, impose new safety regulations and expand a federal loan guarantee program to encourage private investments in transportation projects.
Despite the measure's short-term impact, the bill delays for two years decisions about a long-term funding scheme for highway and transit programs. Gas and diesel taxes no longer cover the cost of transportation programs and are forecast to bring in less revenue as the fuel efficiency of cars and trucks increases.
President Barack Obama spent weeks this spring touring college campuses and lambasting Republicans for not pushing a freeze on student loan rates through Congress. GOP presidential challenger Mitt Romney, looking to avoid handing Obama an issue, quickly said he favored the interest rate extension and congressional GOP leaders did too, though some Republicans think the government should not spend money to keep loan rates low.
The student loan pact would keep today's 3.4 percent interest rates on subsidized Stafford loans from doubling for new loans approved beginning on Sunday, an automatic increase that Congress enacted five years ago to save money. If they did double, it would affect 7.4 million students expected to get the loans over the 12 months beginning July 1, adding $1,000 to the interest costs of the typical borrower over each loan's life.