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Originally published Wednesday, June 27, 2012 at 9:30 PM

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Congress works out compromise on student loans, transportation

Congressional leaders were planning to combine the highway and student-loan measures into a single bill to reduce potential procedural obstacles and hoped for final approval this week. Lawmakers would then leave Washington for a Fourth of July recess.

The Associated Press

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WASHINGTON — Facing weekend deadlines for action, congressional leaders have agreed to deals overhauling the nation's 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, officials said Wednesday.

Enactment of the transportation measure would create or save 3 million jobs, said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., chief sponsor of the Senate version of the bill. And the student-loan measure would spare an estimated 7.4 million students who get subsidized Stafford loans beginning July 1 — this Sunday — from facing $1,000 in higher interest costs over the lives of their loans.

Congressional leaders were planning to combine the highway and student-loan measures into a single bill to reduce potential procedural obstacles and hoped for final approval this week. Lawmakers would then leave Washington for a Fourth of July recess.

The two-year highway bill would prevent the government's 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 other's priorities this campaign season, Democrats and Republicans say the highway measure will be Congress' top job-creation initiative until the November elections.

"This is the jobs bill for the 112th Congress," said House Transportation Committee Chairman John Mica, R-Fla.

Lawmakers 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 Texas' Gulf Coast. Pipeline approval has been a goal this year for the GOP, which has pitted its claims that it would create jobs against worries that it could accelerate global warming and endanger Midwestern water supplies.

Republicans also agreed to abandon language blocking the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating the toxic ash generated by coal-fired power plants, lawmakers said. The ash is used in some types of cement.

House Republicans won Senate concessions that would halve the time allowed for environmental reviews for highway projects, and squeeze money for bike paths and pedestrian-safety projects by forcing them to compete with other projects, said congressional aides and environmental lobbyists.

The bill delays for two years decisions about a long-term funding scheme for highway and transit programs. Gas and diesel taxes no longer cover the cost of transportation programs and are forecast to bring in less revenue as the fuel efficiency of cars and trucks increases.

The student-loan pact would keep today's 3.4 percent interest rates on subsidized Stafford loans from doubling for new loans approved beginning on Sunday, an automatic increase that Congress enacted five years ago to save money. If rates doubled, it would affect 7.4 million students expected to get the loans over the next 12 months, adding $1,000 to the interest costs of the typical borrower over each loan's life.

Under the agreement, the government would raise $5 billion by changing how companies calculate the money they have to set aside for pensions. That change would make their contributions more consistent from year to year and in effect reduce their payments initially, lowering the tax deductions they receive for their pension contributions.

An additional $500 million would come from increasing the fees companies pay for the government to insure their pension plans, linking those fees to inflation. In addition, $1.2 billion would be saved by limiting federal subsidies of Stafford loans to six years for undergraduates.

Two parties picnic

together at White House

WASHINGTON — Lawmakers of both parties gathered for an annual picnic at the White House's South Lawn under sunny skies Wednesday. Legislators, their spouses and children mingled with White House aides among tents and scores of picnic tables. A Marine Corps band played country tunes. Attorney General Eric Holder, facing a contempt of Congress vote in the House on Thursday, was in the crowd, pausing to chat briefly with Republican Rep. Peter King of New York.

"For all the political differences that are sometimes expressed in this town, we are first and foremost Americans — not Democrats or Republicans," President Obama said.

First black Marines earn

congressional medals

WASHINGTON — Hundreds of African-American veterans who helped to integrate the Marines during World War II at a time segregation was an everyday reality are now proud recipients of the nation's highest civilian honor.

Nearly 70 years after the Marines of Montford Point became the first African Americans in the Corps, Congress on Wednesday awarded them the Congressional Gold Medal. The Corps was the last branch of the U.S. military to allow blacks to serve.

William McDowell, who was selected to represent Montford Point, received the medal on behalf of the roughly 400 Montford Point Marines in attendance. "It does sadden me that some of our brothers are not with us today. The upside of it all is that we do remember each and every one of them. They are in our hearts and minds and they should never be forgotten," McDowell said before taking a pause to dry his eyes.

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