WASHINGTON — Republicans now have the votes they need in the House and the Senate to force President Barack Obama’s hand on the Keystone XL pipeline.
Even with some races still undecided, Election Day victories allow Republicans to claim at least 61 vocal supporters of Keystone XL in the Senate — more than the 60-vote threshold to cut off filibusters and advance debate.
The Republicans set to take control of the Senate in January probably will still be a few votes shy of the two-thirds majority needed to override a presidential veto, even folding in other Democrats who could be enticed to vote in favor of Keystone XL and if still-contested Senate races go to the GOP.
But that math may not matter.
While Republicans are vowing to vote on approving Keystone XL almost immediately after the new Congress is sworn in next year, ClearView Energy analyst Kevin Book said Obama might act first.
“With midterms largely concluded and a Nebraska Supreme Court decision potentially clearing the state-level hurdle before the 114th Congress begins, we would suggest . . . the State Department could approve the project to rob the GOP of an early-session victory lap,” Book said in a research note to clients.
Book noted that an administration approval of Keystone XL also could be offered “as an olive branch to the new Republican leadership.”
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Preibus said congressional action might box Obama in on the Keystone XL pipeline. “I actually think the president will sign the bill on the Keystone pipeline,” he said in an appearance on MSNBC.
TransCanada Corp.’s $5.4 billion pipeline is a top priority for the oil industry as well as its congressional allies, because it is seen as a vital link between Canada’s oil sands development and U.S. markets. The pipeline would run from Alberta to the crude hub in Cushing, Okla., giving the Canadian supplies easy access to Gulf Coast refineries.
Although Canadian producers have been using rail cars to get their crude across the border, that is more expensive than pipeline transport — a margin companies may not be able to afford, especially as oil prices fall.
The State Department has said it is waiting for the Nebraska Supreme Court to rule — probably by year’s end — on a challenge to the pipeline’s route through the state before concluding its own Keystone XL review. Eight federal agencies still have to weigh in on the project, and the State Department must finish reviewing about 2.5 million public comments.
Environmentalists could ramp up pressure on the Obama administration to hold firm against the project against congressional legislation. Obama has not said whether he supports the pipeline; a veto from him would kick the matter back to Congress where a two-thirds vote would be necessary to override his objections.
TransCanada CEO Russ Girling said the company would work with legislators to advance Keystone XL.
“The Keystone XL pipeline has always enjoyed bipartisan support and is a great example of an issue where both parties can work together to create jobs and enhance energy security for the United States,” Girling said in a statement. “After six years, t is time to break the gridlock on Keystone and move forward.”
Keystone XL supporters in Congress have highlighted the project’s slow timeline in using legislation to speed approval. Although the House has passed legislation to authorize Keystone XL, the last major Senate vote permitting the pipeline, in March 2012, was 56-42, four votes shy of the 60-vote filibuster threshold. Although the Senate voted 62 to 37 in favor of building the pipeline in March 2013, that measure was non-binding and did not explicitly authorize the project.
Some Democrats who lost their reelection bids on Tuesday were already in the “yes” column on Keystone XL — including North Carolina’s Kay Hagan and Arkansas’ Mark Pryor — so GOP pickups of those seats did not alter the vote count in the chamber. Neither would potential Democratic defeats in Louisiana, where a runoff will be held next month, and Alaska, where Republican challenger Dan Sullivan was leading incumbent Mark Begich.
Still, Republicans bolstered pipeline support in the Senate with a win in Colorado, where defeated incumbent Democrat Mark Udall has been reluctant to back pro-Keystone legislation, and in Iowa, where Republican Joni Ernst beat Democrat Bruce Braley to succeed Keystone opponent Tom Harkin.
Republican leaders also may be able to lure more “aye” votes from a handful of Senate Democrats who favored the non-binding Keystone XL measure last year but have been unwilling to go further and force its approval, including Michael Benett of Colorado, Tom Carper of Delaware and Bill Nelson of Florida.
Also on FuelFix: Keystone marks 6-year anniversary with pipeline props