Thune: White House forcing ‘blood oath’ from Dems on Keystone pipeline

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) sees the heavy hand of the White House pushing Democratic opposition to payroll tax cut legislation that includes provisions to expedite a federal decision on the Keystone XL oil sands pipeline.

“The White House is having them swear a blood oath on this thing,” Thune, a member of the GOP’s leadership team, told E2 on Wednesday.

His comments come a day after just 10 House Democrats broke ranks to vote for the House GOP payroll tax cut bill, which passed 234-193, that included the Keystone provision.

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That’s far fewer than the 47 House Democrats that voted in July for a stand-alone bill to expedite the proposed pipeline, which would bring crude from Alberta’s massive oil sands projects to Gulf Coast refineries.

“I think left to their own devices, there would be a lot of Democrats who would vote for it, but the White House is dug in on this, and I think there is a lot of arm-twisting going on right now, a lot of broken arms in the House Democrat Caucus and I think that is true up here [in the Senate] too,” Thune said. “It is pretty clear that the White House got to them.”

Seven of the 10 House Democrats that voted for the GOP package Tuesday also supported the Keystone bill in July.

Several Democratic senators told E2 that the White House has not lobbied them to ensure the Keystone provision stays out of the payroll tax cut bill. 

“I haven’t heard anything at this point but that doesn’t mean they haven’t reached out to my staff,” said Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.).

A White House aide did not immediately respond to a request for comment on their level of outreach to Capitol Hill on the Keystone provision, which Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has called a non-starter in the Senate. The path forward for payroll tax cut legislation in the Senate remains uncertain Wednesday.

Extending the payroll tax cut is a top White House priority, but President Obama has also threatened to veto the House version of the bill and attacked the GOP push to tether Keystone to the tax cut.

The Obama administration has punted a decision on whether to permit the proposed pipeline until 2013. Republicans are pushing legislation that would require a permit within 60 days unless the president determines that it’s not in the national interest.

Republicans, backed by powerful business groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Petroleum Institute, are pushing for swift approval of the project that they say would boost energy security and create scores of jobs. 

A slew of unions, such as the Laborers' International Union of North America, the Teamsters and others back the project as well, although labor is not completely united — the Amalgamated Transit Union and the Transport Workers Union both oppose Keystone XL.

Environmentalists and a number of Democrats oppose the project due to greenhouse gas emissions and forest damage from the energy-intensive oil sands projects, potential spills and other issues.