* Reid says chances 50-50 on a transportation bill
* Student loans measure may be added to legislation
* Keystone provision still major sticking point
By Roberta Rampton and Thomas Ferraro
WASHINGTON, June 26 U.S. congressional
negotiators neared a pair of election-year deals on Tuesday -
one for a massive job-creating transportation bill, the other to
prevent a doubling of student-loan interest rates, said Senate
Majority Leader Harry Reid.
Reid, a Democrat, said it was possible that final bipartisan
agreements could be reached on both long-stalled pieces of
legislation before lawmakers leave at week's end for a holiday
To make that deadline, bill text needs to be firm by
Wednesday, and several elements were still "precarious" as of
Tuesday evening, said James Lankford, a House Republican from
Oklahoma on the negotiating panel.
"It feels like we've got six different sets of plates that
are spinning up there and if any one of them falls, then the
whole thing is going to fall," Lankford told Reuters.
Senate negotiators reached a tentative deal to fund a
one-year, $6 billion extension of the current interest rate of
3.4 percent for new Stafford loans for about 7.4 million
students, aides and lawmakers said.
Assistant Senate Republican leader Jon Kyl said: "We've
reached an agreement on the (student loan) bill, and the only
thing that would be holding that up is the politics of the
Senate aides said the two bills could be combined, passed
together and presented to President Barack Obama to sign into
law as a package within days - provided Republicans in the House
of Representatives go along with it.
But it was unclear if they would.
One major stumbling block remained: how to deal with House
Republican demands to include accelerated approval of the
Keystone XL crude oil pipeline from Canada to Texas as part of
the highway bill.
Obama put the project on hold this year pending further
environmental review. The move riled House Republicans, who say
it should be promptly approved for the good of the country.
"I think Keystone's still very much in play, even right
now," Republican Rob Bishop said on Tuesday evening.
"It probably will be the last issue to be settled."
Federal funding for road, bridge and rail projects - and as
many as 3 million construction jobs - expires on Saturday,
putting lawmakers under pressure to come to an agreement on a
two-year package proposed by the Senate, or craft a short-term
extension at current funding levels.
Neither Democrats nor Republicans want to be blamed for
stalling the bill, a move that would hurt the economy ahead of
the Nov. 6 general election.
"I think its chances today are better than 50-50 that we can
get a bill done," Reid said, adding that he needed a hand from
the top House Republican, Speaker John Boehner.
"We're still looking at Speaker Boehner to help us get that
over the finish line," Reid said.
The starting point for talks on the transportation
construction bill was a two-year, $109 billion package passed by
the Senate. Republicans have won some tentative concessions to
streamline environmental reviews for certain types of road
projects, and to ease proposed regulations for coal ash, a
power-plant byproduct used in cement.
Lawmakers must move fast to prevent a doubling of the
interest rate on federal Stafford student loans to 6.8 percent
that would take place on July 1.
In recent months, each side has swapped and rejected
Under the tentative deal, $1.2 billion of the $6 billion
needed to extend the low-interest rate for a year would come
from limiting subsidized loans to 150 percent of the length of
time a student attends a college.
For example, the subsidy would be good for six years for
those who get four-year undergraduate degrees, an aide said.
Another $5 billion would come from the way employers compute
their pension liabilities while $500 million would be the result
of changes in employer contributions to the Pension Benefit
Guarantee Corporation, the aide said.
Failure to extend the low rate would cost an estimated 7.4
million students an average of about $1,000 each in added costs
over the life of their college loans, the White House estimates.
Obama began cranking up pressure on Congress in April with
campaign-style speeches at college campuses urging it to extend
the low rate.
Republican presidential challenger Mitt Romney subsequently
said that he, too, believes that the rate should be renewed, but
Democratic and Republican lawmakers have wrestled over how to
fund it without adding to budget deficits.