Alan Fram
and Joan Lowy

WASHINGTON: Facing weekend deadlines for action, congressional leaders have tentatively agreed to deals overhauling the nationís 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 angering voters and embarrassing headlines in the run-up to this Novemberís 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.

Congressional leaders were hoping to combine the highway and student loan measures into a single bill to reduce potential procedural obstacles, and hope to vote final approval this week. Lawmakers would then leave Washington for a July 4 recess.

The two-year highway bill would prevent the governmentís 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 otherís top priorities this campaign season, Democrats and Republicans say the highway measure will be Congressí top job-creation initiative until the November elections.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., chief Senate sponsor of the transportation bill, said the measure would save or create 3 million jobs.

As the price for the highway agreement, Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., 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 Texasí Gulf Coast.