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Mr. Pfeiffer suggested that the president’s comments about Keystone are aimed at September confrontations with Republicans over spending and borrowing.

“He’s put his jobs ideas on the table, he’s calling on Republicans to do the same,” Mr. Pfeiffer said. “To date, the core of the Republican jobs package … is vote to repeal Obamacare for the 40th time and build the Keystone pipeline. There’s a legitimate debate over whether you should build that pipeline or not. The president’s point is that’s not a jobs strategy.”

Republican lawmakers also suspect that the president is signaling his disapproval of the project, which environmentalists vehemently oppose. Last month, Mr. Obama said his administration would approve the pipeline only if it would not contribute to carbon pollution.

Canadian government and private officials have said repeatedly that they will mine the oil and sell it in the U.S. or somewhere else to burn and put carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, regardless of whether the pipeline is built.

Republicans said that whether Mr. Obama is trying to kill the pipeline or is posturing for September, he is way off base in the jobs numbers for the project.

“The president famously pledged to ‘do whatever it takes’ to create jobs — but this is a new low,” said House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton, Michigan Republican. “Attacking new job opportunities is not a jobs plan. Unions and manufacturers are desperate for the president to say yes to the Keystone pipeline because it will get thousands of workers off of unemployment and back on the job. The president should listen to these American workers looking for a job and embrace the opportunity to realize the benefits of $7 billion in private investments.”

The State Department has estimated that the pipeline project would create 5,000 to 6,000 construction jobs per year. TransCanada Corp., which would build the pipeline, has said it would generate about 13,000 jobs over two years.

The State Department also said the project could support another 42,000 jobs per year for two years across the U.S. in related industries.

Mr. Upton and two other Republicans on his committee wrote a letter Wednesday asking Mr. Obama to explain his comments that downplayed the economic benefits of the pipeline. They said the administration’s nearly 1,800-day approval process for the pipeline “has now become an embarrassment.”

“Your recent comments have only added to the immense amount of uncertainty that surrounds the Keystone XL approval process,” they wrote.