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Senate Democrats seek to leverage transport support

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Key senators sought on Thursday to short-circuit any challenge to extending temporarily funding for highway construction programs when Congress returns next week.

Senator Barbara Boxer, chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, and Senator Tim Johnson, chairman of the Banking Committee, sent letters to colleagues outlining jobs in all states that would be at risk if the funding dedicated for transportation through January were slowed or halted.

"We're trying to prevent a battle over something that is so critical," Boxer said.

Estimates vary on the economic impact of transportation funding, but the Senate letter said those programs, when matched by state and local investments, support more than 1.8 million jobs in all sectors of the economy.

Boxer, Johnson and other fellow Democrats are concerned Republicans will try to block the extension to bolster their politically charged case for reducing federal spending and cutting taxes.

Republicans control the House of Representatives and President Barack Obama's fellow Democrats control the Senate.

Last month, House Republicans held up passage of a similar bill to fund airport construction programs. That led to a partial shutdown of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

Republicans have signaled in recent days that they do not intend to stall the highway extension.

Under current legislation that expires September 30, the Transportation Department has continued reimbursing states for road, bridge and transit upgrade from a trust account that is adequately funded for now.

The blueprint laying out government surface transportation funding, known as the "Highway Bill," expired two years ago and since then Congress has passed a series of short-term bills to keep the money flowing.

The government spends $110 million per day on highway programs, state figures show.

An extension would also permit the government to continue collecting gasoline taxes, which go into the trust account for reimbursing states.

President Barack Obama said on Wednesday that Congress should act quickly on a transportation extension to preserve jobs in a tough economy.

(Additional reporting by Lisa Lambert; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

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