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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Senate leaders struck a deal on Wednesday to move forward on stalled transportation legislation that now will include votes on a string of amendments, some controversial and unrelated to highway and transit construction.
Majority leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, said the chamber would begin slogging through 30 amendments on Thursday, and could wrap up work on the $109 billion proposal later in the day.
"We have a huge job," Reid said after announcing that he and his Republican counterparts had agreed on a list of amendments that include votes on the fate of the Keystone XL pipeline and a proposal to expand off-shore oil and gas drilling.
Other amendments include a proposal targeting off-shore tax havens, a repeal of certain energy tax subsidies, and a plan to relax clean air standards for industrial boilers.
The more controversial amendments would require support from 60 senators, or nearly two thirds of the chamber, making approval difficult.
Transportation legislation is a priority of leaders in both houses. They view it as a way to create jobs and demonstrate to a skeptical electorate that Republicans and Democrats can overcome partisanship to help the economy.
The transportation provisions in the Senate bill have broad bipartisan support while competing legislation in the House of Representatives is another matter.
On Wednesday, House Speaker John Boehner implored majority Republicans to approve a $260 billion proposal, which has fallen victim to internal squabbling.
The bill is meant to help the Republicans stake an election-year claim as the party of job creation, funding as many as 7.8 million new jobs in the construction industry.
Instead, Boehner was forced to issue an ultimatum to end bickering that has stalled the bill as a crucial road funding deadline draws near.
In a closed-door meeting with House Republicans, he warned that if they failed to pass the House bill, they would have to settle for the less-ambitious Senate measure, according to a source who attended the meeting.
If the House were forced to take up the Senate version, Boehner would be put in a potentially embarrassing situation. He has repeatedly castigated the Senate for failing to consider jobs bills passed by the House.
It would also complicate efforts by House Republican leaders to counter President Barack Obama's election-year attacks that paint Republicans as obstructionists who have thwarted his efforts to tackle high unemployment and grow the economy.
Polls show voters blame Republicans more than Democrats for the political gridlock that has all but paralyzed decision-making in Congress and raised doubts among investors that Washington has the political will to deal with pressing issues, such as deficit reduction.
A temporary law financing road, rail and bridge repairs and permitting government collection of gasoline taxes to fund those improvements expires on March 31. Without new legislation, as many as 1.8 million construction workers could be laid off, Senate Democrats warn.
The House measure hit roadblocks from the start, alienating Democrats and the White House by trying to fast-track TransCanada Corp's Keystone pipeline project. It also lost support from both parties by proposing to eliminate dedicated funding for mass transit.
"Right now that bill lacks the votes to pass. And every other option we've tried has even less support," Boehner was quoted as saying to House Republicans by the source who attended Wednesday's meeting.
Reporting By David Lawder; Editing by Peter Cooney