GOP to push votes on Keystone XL, drilling measures

Congressional Republicans will move to get legislation approving the Keystone XL pipeline through the House and Senate by using surface-transportation bills that both chambers are taking up this week.

The bills’ main purpose is to reauthorize surface-transportation programs beyond their expiration date of March 31. This week the GOP-controlled House plans to vote on a $260 billion, five-year bill to extend current spending through fiscal 2016, while the Democratic-held Senate is debating a $109 billion bill through fiscal 2013.

But Republicans have inserted the Keystone XL language into the House bill, making good on a pledge they would do that if the pipeline weren’t approved before the lower chamber took up that legislation. And Senate Republicans, including Richard Lugar of Indiana and John Hoeven of North Dakota, have filed an amendment approving the pipeline that they hope to attach to their chamber’s transportation bill.

The push serves as Republicans’ latest step to find legislative ways to approve the pipeline and circumvent the Obama administration’s Jan. 18 denial of a permit, a decision many of them called another attempt to delay the decision until after the elections. The administration and President Obama himself have insisted the denial of the permit wasn’t based on the merits, saying that Republicans are to blame because they imposed an arbitrary Feb. 21 decision deadline that didn’t allow enough time for a crucial environmental review.

The Keystone XL language in the House’s surface transportation bill mirrors that of a proposal from Rep. Lee Terry, R-Neb. His proposal, which cleared the House Energy and Commerce Committee recently, would bypass the State Department’s role in the border-crossing pipeline and require the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to approve the pipeline within 30 days or it will be deemed approved. House Democrats, including some Keystone XL supporters, have panned the bill, while Republicans have said it’s long past time for a pipeline they say would create jobs and bring oil from a friendly neighbor.

At the same time, Rep. Connie Mack, R-Fla., is leading an overwhelmingly Republican group of House lawmakers with a bill that would approve the pipeline using Congress’ powers to regulate foreign commerce under the Constitution’s commerce clause.

He has acknowledged the existence of other bills, saying: “I support them all. Anything we can do to get this done, but I think this is the best way to do it.” He also said he would take “any path that becomes available” to advance his bill.

His bill serves as a companion to a proposal in the Senate being fronted by Hoeven. Neil Brown, an adviser to Lugar, said the amendment that Republicans would file in the upper chamber mirrors the Hoeven bill. It’s still not clear, however, if it will come up for a vote, much less win the necessary support to be adopted.

“We will work to get a vote on it, but we don’t control the timing,” he said in an email.

Environmentalist opponents of Keystone XL, who say the pipeline wouldn’t bring the jobs or energy security that supporters claim all while posing a pollution threat, are staging a 24-hour campaign from noon Monday until noon today to get 500,000 people to send messages to senators urging them to oppose any legislation that approves the pipeline. With the campaign less than half over, they had already exceeded their target.

The language faces opposition among Democrats in the upper chamber, including from Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who has said repeatedly that he wouldn’t consider supporting such a measure unless it had a provision requiring that the pipeline’s oil stay in the U.S. Last week the Senate Finance Committee rebuffed efforts by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, to amend the upper chamber’s bill with his own Keystone XL-approving measure.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., said he supports the pipeline but inclusion of that amendment would “take down” the bill.

But Brown noted that Republicans have succeeded once at putting Keystone XL language into other legislation. They won the Feb. 21 decision deadline in the legislation extending the payroll tax cut by two months, a bill that passed the Senate with 89 votes and became law in December.

“So precedent says that Keystone XL isn’t a bill killer,” Brown said.

Oil, gas drilling

The highway and mass-transit legislation in the House also contains controversial provisions that would expand domestic oil-and-gas production. The GOP wants to use the resulting energy revenues to help cover a small portion of the transportation spending’s pricetag.

Republicans have framed the bill as creating jobs and boosting the nation’s energy security and infrastructure, all while linking the two issues together. They are trying to raise pressure on Obama to support more domestic energy production and a pipeline they insist also would create jobs.

“By breaking down government barriers to domestic energy production, it will ease rising gas prices and create up to a million new jobs,” House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, told reporters Thursday.

But those provisions, in addition to the Keystone XL language, may prove to make the bill yet another political flashpoint in what has already proven to be a divisive year in Congress.

One of the energy provisions would open up a small area of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, long considered untouchable for many Democrats who are concerned about the ecological and environmental harm that could result there from drilling.

Even six Republicans wrote to GOP leaders last week urging them not to include the ANWR language.

“Opening ANWR for exploration and development raises serious questions from both a fiscal and environmental perspective; we believe that this measure can achieve broader support and better force Senate consideration if ANWR were removed,” they wrote in a letter.

Republicans have said the U.S. has vast resources in ANWR that could create tens of thousands of jobs and improve energy security if developed. But some top Republicans have sensed an uphill fight to find enough political support to open the area to any drilling.

“I look at what I know of my colleagues here in the Senate, on other side of the aisle particularly, and I can see that there are some real hurdles there,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, top Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

The other two provisions in the House transportation bill would expand offshore drilling into new waters, including in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, and require the Interior Department to sell commercial oil-shale leases on Western lands. Together, the three energy provisions would raise about 4 percent of the needed funding for the bill, with additional funding coming from other sources.

Senate Democrats including Barbara Boxer of California have long urged Republicans in the House to stay away from “controversial items” in a bill that is important to the economy and infrastructure. The Senate’s legislation, which doesn’t contain any of the energy-related provisions, has drawn strong bipartisan support.

And environmental and taxpayer watchdogs have criticized the energy provisions as a flawed funding mechanism. Deron Lovaas, transportation program director with the Natural Resources Defense Council, has said the “odd linkage” of energy production to highway spending “isn’t just environmentally damaging but fiscally irresponsible.”

Democrats plan to offer a bevy of amendments to the House legislation to water down the drilling provisions. Another amendment would require oil from the Keystone XL pipeline to stay in the U.S., while yet another would repeal a series of oil-and-gas tax breaks.

But Republicans also plan to offer their own energy-related amendments that stand a much better chance of being adopted. Some of the amendments would block Environmental Protection Agency regulations of coal ash and cement plants.