By David Lawder
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Democrats tried to squeeze Republican House Speaker John Boehner into accepting their U.S. Senate-passed transport bill on Wednesday, less than four days before federal funding for road, bridge and mass transit projects expires.
A rival bill championed by Boehner and which he once called his signature jobs initiative has faltered badly amid deep divisions within his party, and Democrats were offering little help in arranging an extension that would avert transport construction shutdowns starting on Sunday.
As many as 1.5 million construction workers face layoffs unless Congress extends project funding authority, either through a new transport measure or an extension of current law.
The federal government also would have to halt collection of about $110 million worth of gasoline taxes per day at the wholesale level - money it would never be able to recoup and which would likely be pocketed by oil companies.
Deeply divided House Republicans have balked - and ultimately relented - over other issues recently, including tax and spending impasses, helping to drive Congress' approval ratings to new lows.
House Republicans nearly let a payroll tax cut expire at the end of the year before a last minute deal by Boehner and the United States came to the brink of default in August over a bitter debt limit feud.
Boehner has struggled for more than a year to control his unruly caucus, in which fiscally conservative Tea Party members have refused to support spending legislation, requiring Democratic support for them to pass.
EXTENSION TALKS, VOTE
House Republicans, who could not agree on the $260 billion, five-year transport bill pushed by Boehner, sought a 90-day extension of current law earlier this week. But Democrats withheld their support, making a two thirds majority needed under suspended rules impossible.
Republicans later arranged procedural rules to allow a simple majority vote on Thursday on the extension.
Senate Democrats said on Wednesday that Boehner had no choice but to pass the $109 billion two-year Senate bill. The rare bipartisan measure won 22 votes from Republican senators.
"It's become clear that Speaker Boehner has run out of options," said Democratic Senator Charles Schumer, adding that Republicans will struggle to muster a simple majority for an extension because of opposition from Tea Party conservatives.
"The Senate two-year (bill) could be a lifeboat for Speaker Boehner. He should take it before it's too late," Schumer said.
House Republicans showed no signs of moving closer to the Senate bill and aides from both parties said talks to end the impasse were continuing.
"It remains Democrats' choice as to whether to work in a bipartisan fashion, or to play political games with our country's economy," said Michael Steel, a spokesman for John Boehner.
Both sides also say they want to avoid a shutdown of road, bridge and rail construction projects with the economy still struggling, a 17 percent unemployment rate for construction workers and jobs the top issue for the November elections.
With federal support for highway and transit construction running at about $51 billion a year and every $1 billion of that supporting 30,000 jobs, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials estimates that some 1.5 million jobs would be lost in a shutdown of all construction activity.
The ripple effects would far outweigh a two-week shutdown of federally funded airport projects last summer amid similar partisan wrangling in Congress.
Although airport taxes were not collected during that period, there was no decline in ticket prices. The state highway group's executive director, John Horsley, predicts no reduction in gasoline pump prices if Congress misses Sunday's deadline.
"So the oil companies will get richer and the rest of us will go without highway repairs. Not a good outcome," Horsley said.
(Reporting By David Lawder; Editing by Paul Simao)