Senators falling short on votes to force Keystone approval

By Laura Litvan
Bloomberg News

Keystone XL supporters are falling short in their efforts to round up the Democratic votes in the Senate to bypass the White House and approve the Canada-to-U.S. oil pipeline.

A bipartisan bill was introduced yesterday that would circumvent President Barack Obama by issuing a permit allowing construction. The move came after his administration delayed a decision on the $5.4 billion project, possibly into next year, citing a legal challenge to the route it would take through Nebraska.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat who opposes the pipeline, told reporters yesterday that there is a “75 to 80 percent chance” that a vote on a standalone Keystone bill will be allowed.

That might seem like good news for pipeline supporters, but Democratic leaders are convinced they could defeat a binding measure to force a permit for the pipeline, said a Democratic leadership aide who spoke on condition of anonymity. The pipeline is opposed by environmentalists, a core constituency of the party.

The legislation’s authors — Republican Senator John Hoeven of North Dakota and Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana — said they have 56 supporters — four shy of what’s needed to end delaying tactics by opponents and make the vote anything more than an election-year gambit putting supporters on record for voters back home.

Half dozen

Hoeven said all 45 Senate Republicans, along with 11 Democrats, support his legislation, and now he and Landrieu have “six or seven” Democrats in their sights, yet don’t yet have any takers. The bill is S.2280.

The targets are Democrats who in March 2013 joined Republicans to pass a nonbinding resolution backing the pipeline with 62 votes.

A year earlier, a binding amendment pushed by Hoeven to approve the project over Obama’s opposition got 56 votes — the same number who have signed onto his new bill. The legislation recognizes the State Department’s final Environmental Impact Statement released in January that concluded the pipeline’s construction would have no significant impact on the environment, and approves the project.

The six Democrats who backed the project when it didn’t force Obama’s hand are Tim Johnson of South Dakota, Michael Bennet of Colorado, Tom Carper and Chris Coons of Delaware, Bill Nelson of Florida and Mark Warner of Virginia.

Obama ‘undecided’

“The president is undecided,” Johnson said in an interview, adding that he has no intention of going against Obama on binding legislation.

Bennet and Carper said they’re still considering how they will vote this time, although Carper noted recently that voters in his state are divided over whether the project should go forward.

Nelson probably won’t support it, his spokesman said, because he only wants the pipeline to be built after it’s clear that all the U.S. states along its route support it.

“I believe Senator Nelson will vote ‘no’ because state concerns about the route are still unresolved,” his spokesman, Ryan Brown, said.

Coons will vote against the bill, because he doesn’t believe it’s Congress’s role to intervene in a construction project, spokesman Ian Koski said in an interview.

Udall’s vote

Meanwhile, Democratic Senator Mark Udall of Colorado — who has said there is a “legitimate argument” that the pipeline is in the national interest — doesn’t think Congress should intervene right now, said his spokesman, Mike Saccone.

“He believes the review process needs to continue without Congress injecting politics into the process,” Saccone said.

Oil industry groups said they were urging supporters to contact Senate offices in support of the bill. The Consumer Energy Alliance, a Houston-based group whose members include Exxon Mobil Corp., will run online advertisements concentrated in the home states of five Democrats in support of Keystone, said R.C. Hammond, a spokesman, in an e-mail.

Jack Gerard, chief executive officer of the American Petroleum Institute, a Washington-based group that represents the largest oil companies, said in a statement the group is also lobbying for approval of the bill, without detailing its plans.

Six years

Calgary-based TransCanada Corp.’s proposed pipeline would link Canada’s oil sands with refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast, yet the fight over its approval is in its sixth year and comes as the administration is under pressure from environmentalists who say the project would boost greenhouse-gas emissions. Backers say it would create jobs and promote North American energy independence.

The State Department, which is leading an interagency review of the pipeline proposal, had asked other agencies to file comments on the plan by early this month. On April 18, it announced it would extend that deadline until a legal challenge to the route through Nebraska is settled by the state Supreme Court. That probably extends consideration into 2015.

The Republican-led House has passed measures approving the project with substantial majorities, but even if Senate advocates succeed in winning a Keystone vote and it cleared Congress, Obama could still veto a bill. That would require 67 Senate votes to override — far more than supporters have identified yet.

Jim Manley, a former top aide to Reid, said any vote’s real impact will be to allow a handful Democrats in close Senate races a chance to publicly split with Obama over a pipeline that is popular back home. Landrieu, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Mark Begich of Alaska and Kay Hagan of North Carolina all support Keystone and are at risk of losing their seats in states that Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney won in 2012.

‘Tangible evidence’

“It’s going to allow a number of Democrats up for re- election to provide tangible evidence of their distance from the president,” Manley said in an interview. “The administration may not like that, but that’s a fact.”

Still, the administration is pressuring other Democrats not to join in, with White House Press Secretary Jay Carney calling on the Senate to stay out of the process.

“What we’ve seen in the past, when Congress has passed legislation, it has actually slowed the process down,” Carney said on April 30. “So we believe that this has to be run by the book outside of politics, and that’s the way it’s being run.”

Keystone opponents yesterday dismissed the push in Congress as a political stunt that’s more show than substance.

“It’s like a prairie chicken — once you get past the puffed up feathers, there’s not a whole lot underneath there,” Randy Thompson, a Nebraska rancher who oppose the pipeline, told reporters on a conference call to discuss the court case that has delayed the project.

David Domina, an Omaha-based attorney who brought the case, said he thinks the president has the exclusive authority to approve the project and set terms for its construction. Passage of the Senate measure could actually delay a decision by sparking another legal challenge, he said. Hoeven and other pipeline advocates, however, point to a Congressional Research Service report that concluded Congress did have authority to intervene.

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