Reid says he’s open to vote on Keystone XL — with strings attached

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., for the first time said he might consider having a vote on a transportation bill amendment that would approve the Keystone XL oil pipeline.

At the same time Reid said that his openness to the prospect rested upon the fate of dozens of other amendments Republicans have filed to the upper chamber’s transportation bill.

“If it were the only totally non-relevant, non-germane amendment, that would be fine,” Reid told reporters in the Capitol. “But they’ve got lots of them, and we’ve got to try to work our way through those.”

The $109 billion, bipartisan bill would reauthorize surface transportation programs through fiscal 2013. But it has been stuck in the Senate amid jockeying back and forth over what amendments shoud come to votes. Today the bill failed to clear a procedural hurdle as Republican opposition prevented the 60 votes needed to end floor debate.

Reid and other Democrats have decried a host of what they call non-germane amendments that threaten a bill that is not only crucial to the economy but has enjoyed strong bipartisan support.

Senate Republicans want a vote on a Keystone XL amendment sponsored by Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., that would approve the pipeline using Congress’ authority under the commerce clause. But until now Reid had repeatedly said he opposed the measure and wouldn’t consider it unless it contained provisions that required the pipeline’s oil and refined fuels to stay in the U.S.

Neil Brown, an adviser to Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., a staunch advocate of Keystone XL, told Fuel Fix today it still isn’t clear whether the Keystone XL amendment will get a vote. But Lugar, one of the three GOP main cosponsors of the amendment along with Hoeven and Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana, called on Reid Tuesday to allow a vote.

““Americans are screaming for more affordable oil supplies. The irony is that Democratic Senate leadership is calling for more oil from Saudi Arabia even as they continue to obstruct efforts to bring oil from Canada,” Lugar said in a statement, referring to some Democrats’ calls for pushing Saudi Arabia to boost its oil production.

Republicans in both chambers have sought to circumvent the Obama administration’s decision Jan. 18 denying a cross-border permit for the TransCanada Corp. project.

Obama and his top aides have said the decision to reject the State Department permit wasn’t based on the merits but due to Republican insistence on an arbitrary decision deadline. They have said it prevented the administration from doing another environmental study on a new route through Nebraska — not yet identified — after state residents raised concerns about the original route.

Many Democrats, including some who support Keystone XL such as Rep. Gene Green, D-Houston, have raised procedural objections to having Congress approve the pipeline. Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., has warned that rushing the pipeline’s approval could create more delays down the line in the form of litigation.

TransCanada has said it is close to reapplying for the cross-border permit but will seek to start building the southern leg from the supply hub of Cushing, Okla., to Gulf Coast refineries in Port Arthur and Houston. The White House has given its blessing to the southern leg, saying that pipe segment would relieve an oil glut at Cushing that has depressed the price of crude traded there all while providing an outlet for the supply to get to more refineries.

Republicans have insisted the State Department had enough time to study Keystone XL, and they argue that the southern leg isn’t enough. They say it’s high time for a pipeline they contend would create jobs and increase oil imports from a friendly neighbor. Environmental advocates who oppose the project question both of those claims.

“The Hoeven-Lugar-Vitter Keystone XL legislation would bring jobs almost immediately and send a much-needed signal to markets that more affordable and secure supplies are on the way,” Lugar said in his statement.

A bill passed by the House last month includes a provision that would approve the cross-border permit for the 1,700-mile pipeline. The bill serves as one component of a broader energy-infrastructure package.

But that bill, a $260 billion measure covering five years, has come under fire from a wide range of stakeholders and is considered dead in the Senate. Conservative activists have said it doesn’t cut spending and environmental groups have decried separate provisions in the bill that would boost oil-and-gas drilling into new areas to generate revenues for some transportation projects.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, told reporters in the Capitol that the GOP leadership was “continuing to talk to our members, trying to find common ground in order to move our energy and infrastructure bill.”

Asked by a reporter if he would consider the Senate’s two-year bill, without drilling provisions, Boehner said: “That is an option.”

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who has led the Senate’s effort in crafting its transportation bill, said she was encouraged at Boehner’s comment.

“At this point they haven’t been able to get a bill that they feel has a chance,” Boxer, chairwoman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said on the Senate floor. “This bill, I would reiterate for America, is bipartisan — the most bipartisan bill I have ever seen around here.”

This story was last updated at 5:01 p.m.