GOP blocks energy bill, scuttling vote on Keystone XL pipeline

Greg Nash

Senate Republicans on Monday blocked bipartisan-energy efficiency legislation and derailed a promised vote on the Keystone XL pipeline, striking a blow against two Democratic incumbents facing tough re-election races.

Only three Republicans, including its chief GOP sponsor, Sen. Rob Portman (Ohio), voted to end debate and move to a final vote. Supporters needed 60 votes to overcome a filibuster from Republicans angered that Democrats wouldn't allow votes on their amendments.

Monday's 55-36 vote followed days of negotiations that failed to yield a deal on amendments.

The stalemate denied an important victory to the bill’s other sponsor, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), who faces a general-election challenge from former Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.).

Democrats accused Republicans of sinking the bipartisan bill to prevent Shaheen from touting a win on the campaign trail. She worked with Portman for three and a half years on the bill.

The legislation would have strengthened energy efficiency requirements for new homes and commercial buildings and encouraged private sector companies to develop energy efficient technology.

The filibuster also thwarted Sen. Mary Landrieu (La.), another vulnerable incumbent who sought a vote on the pipeline. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) promised a vote on Keystone if Republicans let the Shaheen-Portman energy efficiency bill reach a final vote.

Reid was the only Democrat to vote against cloture, but he only did so after first voting in favor of cloture and then switching his vote to preserve his right under Senate rules to bring the bill back to the floor.

Monday’s impasse likely dooms a Senate vote on the pipeline, a high priority of Republicans and Democrats from energy rich states, for the rest of this year.

Landrieu said last week that she needed only two or three more votes to reach the 60 required to pass a stand-alone bill authorizing the pipeline’s construction.

A Democratic leadership aide said it is up in the air whether the energy efficiency bill or Keystone will come up for votes again on the Senate floor this year. The aide noted Republicans also blocked the energy efficiency bill in September, lowering the chance that it will see floor time again in 2014.

The Senate will spend the rest of the month until the Memorial Day recess on a package extending a variety of expired tax provisions.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) framed his opposition as a principled objection over Senate procedure. He said the GOP filibustered because Reid refused to let them vote on a handful of amendments.

Portman and GOP co-sponsors Sens. Kelly Ayotte (N.H.) and Susan Collins (Maine) voted in favor of cloture, while Sens. John Hoeven (N.D.), Johnny Isakson (Ga.) and Roger Wicker (Miss.) voted against cloture. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), another GOP cosponsor, missed the vote but had said last week she would oppose cloture. 

Reid said Republicans constantly changed their demands. He said they initially expressed a willingness to vote on the bipartisan bill without amending it. They then requested a vote on a non-binding resolution urging President Obama to approve Keystone before asking for a vote on legislation approving the pipeline’s construction, Reid said.

Reid said the final straw came after he promised Republicans a vote on a stand-alone bill authorizing Keystone. They again upped their demand by insisting on several other energy-related amendments, he said.

“They have held this bill hostage, this energy efficiency bill, as demand after demand has been met but even now they are still seeking a ransom,” Reid said Monday before the vote.

McConnell said Republicans blocked the bill to end what he called Reid’s “gag rule,” the leader’s practice of not allowing the minority party to offer amendments.

Portman negotiated up until the final moment to find a deal on amendments, said a GOP aide.

Republican negotiators say the talks broke down over an amendment sponsored by Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) that would have increased liquefied natural gas exports.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (Mich.), a member of the Democratic leadership, adamantly objected to a vote on the measure, which she fears could raise domestic energy prices and hurt manufacturers based in her state.

She and 19 other Democratic senators sent a letter to President Obama last week urging him to oppose expanded exports.

Reid did not want to vote on the issue, which would have exposed a rift in his caucus. Five Democratic senators, Landrieu, Mark Udall (Colo.), Mark Begich (Alaska), Tom Udall (N.M.) and Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.) sent a letter to Obama on May 2 complaining about the slow pace of exports.

A Senate Democratic aide said Monday that liquefied natural gas was not the only obstacle. The aide said Republicans were pushing other unpalatable amendments. One would have established a procedural hurdle for enacting a carbon tax and another would have blocked proposed regulations for new coal-fired power plants.

Republican negotiators say Democrats had indicated a willingness to vote on power-plant regulations as well as carbon taxes as long as they could have offered an alternative measure to compete with the latter.

A Democratic aide familiar with the talks acknowledged that Democratic negotiators discussed a possible vote on the carbon emissions amendment sponsored by Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.). The aide said the carbon-tax prohibition sponsored by Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) was not discussed seriously.