By Roberta Rampton
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republicans in the Senate signaled on Wednesday they plan to keep the Keystone XL pipeline alive as a tool for skewering President Barack Obama on jobs, the top political issue ahead of the 2012 elections.
Thirty-seven Republicans have signed on to a bill that would require the Obama administration to allow work to begin on the Canada-to-Texas oil pipeline within 60 days of passage, which will be difficult to achieve in the Democratic-controlled Senate.
The State Department must approve the $7 billion pipeline project by TransCanada Corp. It had originally planned to announce a decision by the end of the year, but delayed its ruling pending a study of a new route, which will push the decision past the 2012 presidential election.
Approval of the pipeline would create 20,000 jobs at no cost to the government and would displace oil imports from the Middle East, the senators said.
"We know that there's one major shovel-ready project ready to go, and that's the Keystone pipeline," Mitch McConnell, Republican leader in the Senate, said at a news conference.
The pipeline has been vociferously opposed by environmental groups, who threatened to make it an election issue.
"Incredibly, he (Obama) has delayed a decision until after the 2012 election apparently in fear of offending a part of his political base," said Richard Lugar, top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations committee, who sponsored the bill.
A White House spokesman denied the decision was politically motivated, saying the State Department has said it needs more time to review the route's impact on communities and the environment.
"I recognize that there are people in Washington, D.C., who want to apply a political label to every single thing that the president or other members of his administration do," said Josh Earnest, speaking to reporters on Air Force One.
"But at the end of the day this is a decision that falls cleanly in line with the priorities that the president laid out for the need to balance competing priorities," Earnest said.
A State Department spokesman did not immediately have a comment on the bill.
There is hope that some Senate Democrats could sign on to the bill, said Marty Durbin, vice president with the American Petroleum Institution, a lobby group for oil companies.
"In either case, having this legislation out there is going to help keep the drumbeat going," Durbin said.
The bill will be fought by lawmakers who want to see a new environmental review of the project.
"I will vigorously oppose any efforts by Republicans in Congress to legislate a rubber-stamp approval for the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline," said Bernie Sanders, one of the Senate's most liberal members, who said the project would increase greenhouse gas emissions.
The Republican senators argued Canada will ship its oil east to China if the Keystone pipeline falters. That would lead to more emissions than if the oil was processed through U.S. refineries, said John Hoeven of North Dakota, whose state needs the pipeline to ship oil from its booming shale development.
The pipeline had been opposed by lawmakers in Nebraska, who were concerned about its proposed route. But TransCanada and the state have now agreed to an alternate path.
"The issues in Nebraska have been resolved," said Mike Johanns, a senator from the state who had opposed the project's original route but does not oppose the revised plans.
(Additional reporting by Laura MacInnis aboard Air Force One and Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Bill Trott)