Dem Keystone support creates tougher fight for Reid, Obama

Republicans want to jam Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) on the Keystone oil sands pipeline and the Democratic leader will have a tough time resisting, given support within his caucus for the project.

GOP leaders have made clear to Reid that they will not approve an extension of the payroll tax holiday unless it includes language to speed up construction of the pipeline.

Senate Republicans estimate as many as 14 Senate Democrats support the project. Labor unions have also voiced strong backing, complicating Reid’s endgame talks with GOP leaders.

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“I personally think the pipeline is absolutely in the national interest. It’ll help us reduce our dependence on foreign energy, at least foreign sources that are hostile to our interests,” Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) said on the Senate floor Wednesday. “I, for one, on this side would hope that this could be part of a final package.”

Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) said Thursday the pipeline has more support among Democrats than her leaders acknowledge.

“It’s always had more Democratic support than people thought,” she said.

Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) said on the Senate floor Tuesday: “I am proud to again offer my support for the Keystone XL pipeline and the jobs it will create. We need a quicker decision, based on the merits of this project.”

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) told House GOP colleagues Friday morning he would force the Senate to vote on expediting Keystone by attaching it to the bill that Senate leaders are crafting on a two-month extension of the payroll tax holiday and unemployment benefits.

Republicans say they will also insist on including Keystone in a yearlong extension of the payroll tax holiday, unemployment benefits and a one-year freeze in scheduled cuts to Medicare reimbursements.

Republican leaders see it as a juicy political issue to use against President Obama. If Democrats block it, it reinforces the GOP message that the administration’s regulatory agenda slows job growth.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Friday afternoon that he and Boehner would not agree to any package extending the payroll tax holiday that did not include the Keystone language.

“There’s bipartisan support for this project and we need to get it done. We need to get it done now,” McConnell said. “The House of Representatives has been quite clear that they’re not going to support a package that does not include the pipeline. Frankly, I will not be able to support a package that doesn’t include the pipeline.”

McConnell said White House officials want to separate the Keystone pipeline from the payroll tax holiday and unemployment benefits but that it makes no sense to treat it in standalone legislation.

“Let’s also include something that actually helps the private sector create the jobs Americans need for the long term,” he said.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) took to Twitter to make the same demand, proclaiming that “Keystone XL pipeline WILL be part of final tax package.”

At his briefing, White House press secretary Jay Carney again criticized Republicans for inserting the “extraneous” pipeline issue into the bill, and said the State Department review process should be able to run its course. 

However, Carney declined to rule out the White House accepting a bill with Keystone provisions. “I am not going to prejudge a final product that does not yet exist,” Carney said.

Carney rejected the notion that the president's opposition to the Keystone language is political.

"What he has said is that there are criteria that must be considered...You can't approve something before you have something to review. This is a process run by the State Department...that process needs to be reviewed," Carney said. "Again, the president is not making a judgment on whether the permit should or should not be granted. But what it shouldn't be is short-circuited because folks think it ought to be. That's what that review process is all about."

State is the agency charged with the review of Keystone, and it has said it would have to reject Keystone if the House language is approved because it would not have to do a sufficient review. 

Senate Republican aides say Democratic Sens. Claire McCaskill (Mo.), Max Baucus (Mont.), Ben Nelson (Neb.), Mark Begich (Alaska), Joe Manchin (W.Va.), Mark Pryor (Ark.), Kay Hagan (N.C.), Mark Warner (Va.), Debbie Stabenow (Mich.) and Bob Casey (Pa.) also support the Keystone language.

“All the trade unions, everyone’s for it, it creates thousands of jobs,” Manchin said on Fox News earlier this week.

Several Republican senators who are skeptical about the effectiveness of cutting payroll taxes to stimulate the economy say the Keystone pipeline gives them an important reason to vote for it.

Labor leaders have pushed Democratic leaders to concede on the pipeline, which is strongly opposed by environmentalists.

“Throughout America's Heartland, the Keystone Pipeline represents the prospect for 20,000 immediate jobs, and as many as 500,000 indirect jobs via a strong economic multiplier effect,” Mark Ayers, president of the Building and Construction Trades Department of the AFL-CIO, wrote in an opinion piece published by The Huffington Post last month.

Speaking about the ongoing negotiations on the payroll tax bill, Carney said, "There's a process at work. I'm not going to analyze what language would be acceptable and what wouldn't."

He said the president's primary focus is in getting the payroll tax bill passed.

"I'm not going to get ahead of the process," Carney said. "The president's priority is ensuring that Americans do not get that tax hike ... it's vital to the economy."


Ben Geman and Amie Parnes contributed to this report. 


This story was posted at 2:07 p.m. and was updated at 4:08 p.m.

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