Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell declared Tuesday that approving the Keystone XL pipeline will top the Senate agenda in January, potentially setting up an early veto confrontation with President Barack Obama.

Congressional Republicans have been pushing for approval of the pipeline for years. Obama has resisted because of environmental concerns.

"People want jobs and this project will create well-paying high-wage jobs for our people," McConnell told reporters. "We're optimistic we can pass it and put it on the president's desk."

The $8 billion pipeline would carry oil from Canada into the United States and eventually to the Texas Gulf Coast. It has become a symbol for divisions over the country's energy and environmental policy.

Environmentalists say the issue is a significant test of Obama's commitment to address climate change. Republicans and other supporters say the project would create jobs and promote energy security, reducing U.S. reliance on oil from the Middle East.

The 1,179-mile project is proposed to go from Canada through Montana and South Dakota to Nebraska, where it would connect with existing pipelines to carry more than 800,000 barrels of crude oil a day to refineries along the Texas Gulf Coast.

The Republican-led House has repeatedly passed legislation approving the pipeline. But the bills have died in the Democratic-controlled Senate. Last month, a bill fell one vote short of advancing in the Senate.

Republicans will take control of the Senate in January, and McConnell is to become the new majority leader. The Kentucky Republican said the pipeline will be "the first item up in the new Senate."

It could be a lively debate. McConnell promised to allow unlimited amendments, meaning senators could try to force votes on all kinds of unrelated issues.

Such debates have become rare in the Senate in recent years. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., often uses parliamentary procedures preventing amendments on most bills.