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Senate Democrats Said to Weigh Vote Backing Keystone XL

U.S. Senate Democratic leaders are considering scheduling a vote on a non-binding resolution urging approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, according to two Senate Democratic aides.

The option is being discussed as a way to ease passage of separate legislation the Senate could consider as soon as next week that aims to promote energy efficiency, according to the aides, who requested anonymity.

The idea behind the approach is that promising a standalone vote on backing approval of the pipeline would allow Democratic leaders to make the case that Keystone shouldn’t be debated as part of the energy-efficiency bill. It would also give some Democrats a chance to publicly state their support for the project.

The Senate in March 2013 voted 62-37 in favor of a similar non-binding resolution endorsing construction of the pipeline. Sixteen Democrats voted for that measure, including Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Kay Hagan of North Carolina and Mark Begich of Alaska. The four are all seeking re-election this year in states that Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney won in 2012.

After the State Department announced earlier this month that it was again delaying a recommendation on the pipeline, Democratic backers said the Senate should go further and circumvent the administration by forcing the project’s approval.

Senator Heidi Heitkamp, a North Dakota Democrat, said she and other pipeline supporters would “start counting noses again” for legislation to force approval. It’s unclear whether the non-binding resolution vote would appease those pushing for Congress to bypass President Barack Obama on the issue.

60 Votes

Forcing approval of the pipeline would be difficult; supporters acknowledge that they’re still a few votes short of the 60 needed to advance a bill in the 100-member Senate.

It would require two-thirds of the Senate -- or 67 members -- to override an almost certain presidential veto. Majority Leader Harry Reid, who is in charge of the Senate’s calendar and is a pipeline foe, has declined to bring up legislation that would go around Obama on Keystone.

The Republican-led House of Representatives has already passed similar measures by broad majorities. The House in May passed, 241-175, legislation to approve Keystone.

The State Department is leading an interagency review of TransCanada Corp.’s proposal to build a $5.4 billion pipeline from Hardisty, Alberta, to Steele City, Nebraska. From there it would connect to an existing network of pipelines that extends to refineries on the Gulf Coast.

Extend Deadline

The department had asked other agencies to file comments on the plan by early May. 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.

Opponents of the project say the delay probably pushes a final decision into early next year -- after the midterm election in November that will determine control of Congress.

TransCanada proposed Keystone in September 2008. Obama rejected the route after Nebraska officials said it posed a risk to an important aquifer and network of wetlands. A new route was approved by Nebraska Governor Dave Heineman, though landowners challenged a law that gave him that authority.

A landowner victory in the case was appealed to the Nebraska Supreme Court, which may hear the case this fall.

The week before the State Department announced the delay, citing the Nebraska case, 11 Senate Democrats sent a letter to Obama requesting he approve the Keystone pipeline before May 31.

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