Right now, talks are continuing on a House-Senate conference committee on the surface transportation bill, which provides federal funding, paid for mostly by the gas tax, to highway and mass transit projects across the country. Congress has kicked this bill down the road many times, and the House and Senate versions of the bill vary wildly in size and scope. One of the major differences is that the House bill would force approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, which would transport tar sands oil from Canada to refineries in Texas.

But Nick Rahall, the ranking Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, believes that Keystone will get dropped from the final bill, if one comes to pass.

“My guess is that it would not be in the final product,” said Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.), the top Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

The comments are the latest sign that backers of the pipeline will face hurdles winning its inclusion in the bill to reauthorize popular road and infrastructure programs [...]

Rahall, who is on the bicameral panel negotiating on the bill, said interest in jobs tied to other portions of the bill will carry the day.

“I mean, putting people to work is much more important right now. I’d say in a majority of states, putting people to work by passing this transportation bill is more job than the Keystone pipeline in their states,” he told reporters.

This isn’t really surprising. House leaders have already intimated that they would be willing to drop the Keystone XL rider in favor of other provisions in the bill.

But the real implication here is that this Congress has no interest in passing a forcing mechanism on the pipeline at all. In fact, they just want an issue on jobs and energy to drive into November. Look at Mitt Romney’s first television ad, about what he would do as President on Day One. The first item he mentions is that he would “immediately approve the Keystone pipeline, creating thousands of jobs that Obama blocked.” Something with that rhetorical potency – regardless of the facts – is not really something that Romney or his Congressional counterparts want to give up. The issue matters to Republicans far more than the benefits of the pipeline, based on the available evidence.

The real question is whether the conference committee will come to a resolution at all. As I mentioned, the two sides are far apart on the cost of the bill and several other key matters, including one funding mechanism in the House bill, which pays for itself with expanded domestic oil drilling. The House already hedged itself by passing another 90-day extension of the bill, which some Democrats endorsed to get into the conference committee. But if they fail by June 30, the extension already exists for the Senate to pass. That extension, of course, includes the immediate take-up of the pipeline, along with provisions banning regulation of coal ash. So there would still need to be some maneuvering there.

The point being that prospects are dim for a long-term bill before the election, so Rahall’s assurances aren’t really about the kind of transportation bill that would provide certainty on long-term infrastructure projects.