A top priority for a Republican-led Senate will be to send President Barack Obama a bill to authorize the Keystone XL pipeline and dare him to veto it.
While most senators support TransCanada Corp.’s proposed $8 billion Canada-to-U.S. oil pipeline, the Senate under a Democratic majority hasn’t held a binding vote on it since 2012. The Republican-controlled House has repeatedly voted to permit the pipeline’s construction.
Advocates say the shift in Senate leadership next year will give them more leverage in the oil-versus-environment debate that has raged since TransCanada applied for a permit in 2008. While they say they have at least the 60 votes needed to get a bill through Congress, they will lack the two-thirds margin to override a presidential veto.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, poised to lead the Republican majority in January, said at a news conference today that the Senate will take up legislation approving Keystone XL as part of a broader debate on energy policy that will “embrace the energy revolution” in the U.S.
“We need to do everything we can to get America back to work,” McConnell, of Kentucky, said earlier in an interview published on Time magazine’s website.
Obama said today that an independent review by the administration, not congressional action, will guide the process. He reiterated that the central question for him is whether the project will cause a net increase in carbon emissions.
“I’m just going to gather up the facts,” he said.
Senator John Hoeven, a North Dakota Republican and a top pipeline advocate, said Republican backers of the pipeline in the current Senate -- joined by a handful of Democrats -- are three or four votes shy of the 60 needed to approve a bill despite delaying tactics of opponents.
They picked up support in yesterday’s election, with voters electing Republican senators in Iowa, Montana, Colorado, West Virginia and South Dakota to replace Democrats who don’t support it before and who won’t be returning in the next session.
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said yesterday that supporters can force the president’s hand.
“I actually think the president will sign the bill on the Keystone pipeline because I think the pressure -- he’s going to be boxed in on that, and I think it’s going to happen,” Priebus said on MSNBC.
Calgary-based TransCanada’s proposed pipeline would link Canada’s oil sands with refineries on the U.S. Gulf coast. The company yesterday said delays in getting approval have increased its costs by 48 percent to $8 billion.
Russ Girling, the company’s president, said in a statement today that it’s “time to break the gridlock on Keystone and move forward.”
The administration is in a difficult spot as the fight over approval has split major parts of the Democratic Party base. Environmentalists oppose the pipeline, contending it would boost greenhouse-gas emissions linked to climate change. Supporters, including labor unions, say it would create jobs and promote North American energy independence.
The divide extends to Senate Democrats and was on display before the election. Four incumbent Democrats on the ballot -- Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Mark Begich of Alaska -- campaigned in support of the pipeline, similar to their Republican opponents.
Hagan and Pryor lost their elections yesterday and Landrieu will be in a run-off in Louisiana, where neither candidate won more than 50 percent of the vote. Begich was running behind his Republican opponent today in a race that hasn’t been declared by the Associated Press.
Last year, Obama said in a speech at Georgetown University in Washington that he wouldn’t approve the pipeline if it would significantly exacerbate carbon-dioxide emissions.
A State Department environmental study concluded the pipeline probably wouldn’t have a big effect on the climate because Canadian oil likely would be developed even if Keystone is rejected. The department’s review is continuing.
To Daniel J. Weiss, a senior vice president at the League of Conservation Voters, the election outcome means the loss of a “firewall in the Senate.”
Democrats under Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid have refused to consider House-passed bills on Keystone and other energy matters opposed by environmentalists.
The Senate hasn’t taken a binding vote on authorizing the pipeline since 2012, when an amendment from Hoeven failed after getting 56 of the 60 votes needed. Negotiations fell apart on holding a vote on Keystone this year.
Although Obama most likely would veto a stand-alone bill passed by Congress to allow Keystone construction, Weiss said the real test is whether he would also reject it as part of a “must-pass” spending bill or a debt-limit increase.
“We could have another case of government-shutdown chicken, where the Republicans take a spending bill needed to keep the Centers for Disease Control running and the Pentagon running and the Coast Guard running and load it up with special-interest provisions that benefit big oil and big coal,” Weiss said.
Some business supporters of the pipeline say Republican leaders may get more leverage by not rushing ahead with a vote.
The State Department suspended its review of the project in April after a Nebraska state court ruled against the process under which Governor Dave Heineman approved the route through his state. The case is now before the Nebraska Supreme Court.
Karen Harbert, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Institute for 21st Century Energy, said Obama could more easily explain a veto of legislation if Congress passes it before the Nebraska court and State Department finish their deliberations.
The president could simply say the process needs to continue before Congress tries to step in, she said.
“They will have to be strategic in how they advance this, rather than trying to score an immediate political point,” Harbert said.
Others say they’re not optimistic about forcing the president’s hand under any circumstances.
“This president is not going to approve Keystone,” said Michael McKenna, a Republican strategist on energy policy and president of the MWR Strategies lobbying group in Midlothian, Virginia. “It’s a religious item among environmentalists. He’s just not going to approve it, and that’s that.”
Yesterday’s election will put Republican supporters of the pipeline in charge of Senate energy-related panels when Congress convenes in January.
Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska is set to become chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources panel. The oil and natural gas industries can count on her advocacy of Keystone, expanded domestic drilling and U.S. energy exports.
Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee is expected to take over the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which oversees the State Department. He has called Obama’s refusal to approve the pipeline illogical and harmful to the economy.
Also, Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, who has said warnings of climate change are “the biggest hoax perpetrated on the America people,” has enough seniority to take the gavel at the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. He would replace Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer of California, one of the chamber’s most ardent Keystone foes.