The Obama administration’s latest Keystone XL delay is having an unintended consequence: the revival of the effort in Congress to circumvent the White House by forcing approval of the project.
While a plurality of U.S. senators are on record supporting Keystone, no bill relating to the pipeline, other than a nonbinding resolution, has passed in the chamber. That’s because some Democrats who back it haven’t wanted to usurp President Barack Obama’s authority to make the final call.
“We’ll have to start counting noses again,” first-term Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, a North Dakota Democrat, said after the State Department announced last week it was again delaying a recommendation. “Now that this process has taken a turn for the worse, I think we need to have those discussions again.”
Forcing approval remains a heavy lift -- backers acknowledge that they still are 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. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, in charge of the agenda and a pipeline foe, has declined to bring up legislation that would bypass Obama on Keystone.
“The simplest path for Keystone XL remains the State Department,” which has all the information it needs to find the pipeline is in the nation’s interest to build, said Andy Black, CEO of the Association of Oil Pipe Lines, a Washington-based group whose members include TransCanada Corp. (NYSE: TRP), the Calgary-based company that proposed Keystone.
Black said at a Bloomberg government breakfast April 23 in Washington that he was “disappointed” by the administration’s delay.
Sen. John Hoeven, a North Dakota Republican, said supporters are determined to try to advance legislation. His office has reached out to Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, a Democratic backer of the project and the chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, to plot a strategy once members return next week from a two-week break.
“There is going to be a strong push,” to advance a bill, Hoeven said.
The Republican-controlled House of Representatives has already passed similar measures by broad majorities.
The Department of State is leading an interagency review of TransCanada’s proposal to build a $5.4 billion pipeline from Hardisty, Alberta, to Steele City, Neb. From there, it would connect to an existing network of pipelines that extends to refineries on the Gulf Coast.
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 -- well after midterm elections 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 then approved by Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman, although 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 Department of State announced the delay, citing the Nebraska case, 11 Senate Democrats signed a letter to Obama requesting he approve Keystone before May 31. If they all joined the 45 Republicans in the Senate, supporters would still be four votes short of 60.A nonbinding resolution backing the pipeline passed the Senate with 62 votes in March 2013. A year earlier, an amendment,pushed by Hoeven to approve the project over the president’s opposition, got just 56 votes and failed. Democrats Michael Bennet of Colorado, Tom Carper and Chris Coons of Delaware, Tim Johnson of South Dakota, Bill Nelson of Florida and Mark Warner all voted in favor of Keystone when it didn’t matter, and opposed taking the decision out of Obama’s hands. Supporters would probably target those Senate Democrats.
Don Stewart, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, said that Reid probably won’t let it get that far, blocking the Senate from voting on anything at odds with the president on Keystone.“I think he’ll block as much as possible because he doesn’t want to send anything on this to the president, even though there’s wide bipartisan support for getting this done,” Stewart said. Reid spokesman Adam Jentleson didn’t respond to a request for comment on whether the senator would permit a vote on such a measure. Reid has said he opposes Keystone. The House in May passed, 241-175, legislation to approve Keystone. The votes in favor, 222 Republicans joined by 19 Democrats, aren’t enough to override a veto. The administration has said the Department of State should be allowed to complete its review. “What the president has insisted on all along is that this process be run out of the State Department in accordance with established tradition for matters like these, and that’s been the case here,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said April 21.
A decision on Keystone presents political risks for Obama and Democrats. Approving the pipeline would alienate environmental activists the party needs to turn out in the Nov. 4 midterm elections.
Democrats also might lose an important source of cash in races where Tea Party-backed groups are spending to defeat Democrats and give Republicans control of the Senate.
Four of the Senate Democrats who signed the April 10 letter to Obama -- Landrieu, Mark Begich of Alaska, Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Kay Hagan of North Carolina -- face tough re-election races in states where support for Keystone is strong.
Brad Dayspring, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said the delay will make those Democrats look ineffective.“Just a week prior to the president’s announcement, these senators ’urged’ President Obama to approve Keystone, a plea which he proceeded to blatantly ignore,” Dayspring said in an email.
And even if Hoeven, Heitkamp and other supporters were to round up 60, Obama could still veto a bill, requiring supporters to get to 67 votes to override.
Hoeven said supporters would try to attach language approving Keystone to must-pass legislation that Obama can’t veto.
Hoeven said he may try to impose a new deadline for a decision. That’s option B, though, he said.
“The one we want to press is for approval,” Hoeven said.