Keystone vote caught in Senate politics

Sean Cockerham | Tribune Media Services

The Senate could vote as soon as this week on the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, but Keystone supporters said Tuesday they don’t have enough votes to force the president to approve the project.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has indicated he could be willing to let a Keystone vote go forward. Doing so would allow Democrats from conservative states who face tough re-election races to vote in favor of the Keystone pipeline and tell voters they tried to force President Barack Obama to approve it.

Politically vulnerable Democratic Sens. Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Mark Begich of Alaska and Mark Pryor of Arkansas are urging Obama to allow the pipeline to be built and stand to benefit if they can vote in favor of it.

Hagan, who is co-sponsoring the bill to require approval of the pipeline, has expressed disappointment in how long it’s taking for Obama to make a decision. She has said the pipeline would create jobs and help to increase North American energy security. Polls show that Hagan is in serious danger of losing her seat to a Republican opponent in November, and a recent Pew Research poll found that 61 percent of Americans favor the Keystone pipeline.

Landrieu, who also is facing a close race, said Tuesday that there are about 57 votes in favor of the bill to approve Keystone. That’s just short of the 60 needed to overcome an expected filibuster from Democratic senators who are against the project for environmental and climate reasons.

“We need two or three more,” said Landrieu, who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and is leading the charge to get Keystone approved. “We might get those as people listen to debate.”

All 45 Senate Republicans are expected to vote for the bill, leaving the need for 15 Democratic votes. If the measure does pass the Senate, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives would quickly approve the bill as well.

That would set up a showdown with Obama, who would need to decide whether to veto the bill. The Obama administration has indefinitely delayed a decision on Keystone, citing a court battle in Nebraska over what route the pipeline can take through that state.

Obama spokesman Jay Carney would not say this week whether the president would veto a Keystone bill.

“In the past, when Congress has acted, it has actually served to slow down the review process, and we believe strongly that that’s not an effective or helpful way to bring that process to a conclusion,” Carney said.

It was not a sure bet Tuesday night that a Keystone vote would happen, as it was tied up in the politics of an unrelated bill over energy efficiency. Reid told reporters he is willing to allow a vote on the Keystone pipeline if Republicans allowed the energy efficiency bill to pass.

But Reid expressed anger at Republican demands for amendments to the energy efficiency bill, including a GOP attempt to add Keystone approval to the bill and to limit regulation of greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Republicans are just looking for a debate on energy policy in which their ideas have a chance to be considered.

Reid indicated that whether there will be a Keystone vote depends on what happens with the energy efficiency bill.

“At this point they are tied together,” he said.

Lesley Clark of the Washington Bureau contributed.

By Sean Cockerham
McClatchy Washington Bureau