The Louisiana election runoff is coming to Capitol Hill with Republicans and Democrats scheduling votes on the Keystone XL pipeline, as each party seeks to clinch the last undecided U.S. Senate seat.
The House plans today to begin considering a bill sponsored by Republican Representative Bill Cassidy, who is in a Dec. 6 runoff against Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu. After a request by Landrieu, the Senate scheduled a vote as soon as Nov. 18 on an identical proposal to bypass President Barack Obama and set the $8 billion pipeline project in motion.
Keystone has been a central issue in the Louisiana contest, with both candidates highlighting their support for it. Landrieu has focused on the pipeline as a way to distinguish herself from Obama, who lost Louisiana in 2012, and to proclaim backing for an energy industry that provides thousands of jobs in the state.
Obama’s press secretary, Josh Earnest, said legislation to override the pipeline review process wouldn’t be welcomed at the White House.
“The administration, as you know, has taken a dim view of these kinds of legislative proposals in the past,” Earnest told reporters today in Myanmar, where Obama is attending a summit. In the past, he said, “We have indicated that the president’s senior advisers at the White House would recommend that he veto legislation like that.”
“I think it’s fair to say that our dim view of these kinds of proposals has not changed,” he said, according to a transcript.
Nevertheless, a vote on House passage probably will occur tomorrow, a House Republican leadership aide said on condition of anonymity.
“I believe it is time to act,” said Landrieu, who polls show is trailing Cassidy ahead of the contest. “I believe we should take the new majority leader at his word and stop blocking legislation that is broadly supported by the public and has been for some time.”
Before the election, Keystone supporters said they were just a few votes short of the 60 needed to advance the bill in the Senate.
For Landrieu, the calculus is that the opportunity to showcase her legislative skills to voters -- just weeks before the Senate runoff -- will be enough to persuade a few more Democratic colleagues to join her in supporting Keystone.
Landrieu pushed for the vote as Congress convened a lame-duck session yesterday after Republicans won control of the Senate in the Nov. 4 election. Republicans have picked up eight seats so far, while the Louisiana race goes to a runoff because neither she nor Cassidy, 57, won a majority.
Although supporters of TransCanada Corp.’s Keystone project have been shy of the needed Senate votes, Landrieu said yesterday she was “confident that we have the additional votes necessary to pass it” this time. The Senate is run by Democrats until the end of the year.
The Republican-led House has passed similar Keystone measures by broad majorities. Cassidy said that he hoped the Senate would “do the right thing” and pass the legislation.
“After six years, it’s time to build,” he said in a statement.
A Senate Democratic aide said supporters had lined up 13 to 14 Democratic votes for the proposal. At least 15 Democrats would have to vote in favor of the bill if all 45 of the chamber’s Republicans support it.
Even if both chambers passed the measure, Obama still could veto it. A veto would require 67 votes to override, a threshold Keystone supporters probably can’t overcome.
Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois, the chamber’s second-ranking Democrat, said the pipeline is “obviously an important issue” for Landrieu with the runoff election coming up.
Landrieu, 58, chairwoman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, in her campaign has sought to distance herself from Obama on energy issues, including his delay in approving the pipeline.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee, the party’s Senate campaign arm, issued a statement calling Landrieu “the most ineffective energy chair ever.”
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who is poised to become majority leader in January, has said he would support giving Cassidy a seat on the energy panel if he wins the Louisiana runoff.
Political analysts said they doubted a vote on Keystone would provide much of a boost in Louisiana.
“The people she needs to turn out for her in the runoff will not be influenced by a token vote by a few of her colleagues,” said Ross Baker, political science professor at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey.
Even if Landrieu is re-elected, she will lose her position as chairwoman of the energy committee when Republicans take control of the Senate in January.
While the Louisiana campaign hung over the debate in Congress yesterday, Senator John Barrasso, a Wyoming Republican, said his party wouldn’t stand in the way of the measure.
“It seems to be a ‘Hail Mary’ pass in an effort to try to save Mary Landrieu’s Senate seat in Louisiana, and it seems like a desperate act,” Barrasso said in an interview.
If the measure dies in this Congress, it probably will have more success in the next one when Republicans take over the Senate. McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, have said Keystone approval would be a top legislative priority in 2015.
In the lead-up to a possible vote on Keystone earlier this year, backers sought to win over six Democrats who had previously supported a non-binding resolution in a March 2013 vote. They didn’t get the 60 votes necessary to pass a bill.
Senator John Hoeven, a North Dakota Republican who’s a co-sponsor of the pro-Keystone legislation, said before the election that he was still three votes short.
Some Democrats could conceivably switch to support Landrieu, though they’d be undercutting Obama, who has said the administration’s review process on Keystone should be allowed to progress.
Landrieu, along with Senator Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, co-authored legislation that would let Calgary-based TransCanada build and operate the Canada-to-U.S. oil pipeline. Landrieu’s panel approved the measure on June 18.
Although Democrats have already lost their Senate majority, they want to retain as many seats as possible, in part to aid their effort to regain control in two years. Republicans will be defending at least 22 seats in 2016, compared with nine for Democrats.
“It’s interesting when you see the price of the Keystone XL pipeline is a threatened Senate seat when Democrats have lost seats all across the country,” Barrasso said.
Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Nov. 6 that the White House would consider legislation approving Keystone, though he demurred on a question of whether a bill would prompt a veto.
One thing is more clear: Environmental groups that spent record amounts of money in a losing effort to protect the Democratic Senate majority likely would oppose any vote on a project they consider a threat to the climate.
“We’ve had the votes in the past and we’re doing everything in our power to make sure folks vote against it,” Anthony Swift, an international attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a phone interview.
The pipeline has been under review by the State Department for six years. The agency has jurisdiction because the project would cross an international border, though Obama has said he’ll make the final call.
Keystone XL would transport Alberta’s heavy crude to refineries in the U.S. Gulf Coast. Environmental groups say it would encourage development of the carbon-heavy oil sands. Supporters say it would create thousands of jobs and increase North American energy security.