House GOP leaders hope to reclaim political momentum from the White House by bashing President Obama for dithering over the Keystone XL oil sands pipeline.
Republicans, bruised by December’s battle over extending the payroll tax cut, see Keystone as a weak spot for a president focused on the economy as he enters a difficult reelection campaign.
“Attacking Obama on the pipeline delay is definitely a good hit,” said GOP strategist Tyler Harber. “This issue gives another example to Republicans that demonstrates that Obama hasn’t fully embraced policies that could grow jobs.”
It’s a case GOP lawmakers are making at every turn — Republicans have unloaded on Obama with a stream of tweets, Fox News appearances and even an homage to Bob Dylan as they call for approval of TransCanada Corp.’s project.
The GOP is coming off a politically disastrous fight over extending the payroll tax cut for two months that appeared to put it on the wrong side of helping struggling workers.
“Waging war on the White House for the pipeline delay will successfully shift the public debate from the payroll tax cut extension to an issue that Republicans can use to make headway against Obama,” Harber said.
House GOP leaders last month held up the payroll deal when rank-and-file members initially bristled at legislation that had the backing of Senate Republicans.
Ultimately, House Republicans relented, but only after handing the White House political ammunition for a week while they balked.
But the silver lining for the House GOP is that bill included language intended to force the president's hand on Keystone by requiring a permit decision within 60 days, a countdown that expires Feb. 21.
The pipeline project is tricky political terrain for the White House.
Green groups strongly oppose the project due to greenhouse gas emissions and forest destruction from Alberta’s oil sands projects, and fears that pipeline spills will pollute groundwater.
Yet a number of labor unions — another key part of Obama’s base — back the project.
Until passage of the payroll deal, the Obama administration had planned to punt on a decision until after the 2012 elections, citing the need for more environmental review.
Republican pollster Dan Judy says hammering Obama for avoiding action on Keystone is smart politics for GOP lawmakers.
“Republicans also see this as basically a naked ploy [by] Obama to his base, and really sacrificing a project that would provide thousands of jobs to appease liberal, left-wing enviros,” Judy said Thursday of the delayed pipeline decision.
“It fits nicely into the theme they would like to create that Obama is in 100 percent campaign mode, and is more interested in shoring up his political base than he is about a project that would create jobs,” he said.
The White House is pushing back against the 60-day clock by arguing that mandating a decision next month will leave the administration no choice but to reject the project.
But even if Obama rejects the pipeline or finds a way around the deadline, Republicans — in tandem with an aggressive pro-Keystone push by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other major business groups — won’t drop the issue.
GOP aides said this week that they are planning new legislative efforts to force approval or at least a near-term decision.
They’re also coming up with new variations on their attacks almost daily. On Thursday, House Republicans cited lyrics to the Bob Dylan’s “I Threw It All Away” (“I must have been mad, I never knew what I had, until I threw it all away”) to argue that the United States risks losing access to Canadian resources.
Energy and Commerce Committee Republicans, in a press release, noted that Canadian officials are also exploring a pipeline that would send oil sands to China via a pipeline from Alberta to British Columbia’s coast.
Environmentalists, who say pipeline backers are inflating the number of jobs it would create, are ramping up efforts to counter the incessant GOP attacks.
Bill McKibben, who has helped lead opposition to Keystone, used an op-ed in The Hill on Thursday to argue that pro-pipeline lawmakers are furthering souring the public’s dismal view of Congress.
“[T]he reason, above all, that everyone despises Congress is because they think it’s bought and paid for. And Keystone is the perfect example,” wrote McKibben, founder of the group 350.org.
“When the House took its vote on the issue in December, 234 members voted to ‘expedite’ the pipeline. They’d taken, between them, $42 million from the fossil fuel industry, as compared with only $8 million for the 193 on the other side,” he wrote.
350.org, which helped stage a pair of anti-Keystone demonstrations at the White House last year, is planning new demonstrations in swing states and D.C., a spokesman said this week, vowing to focus on lawmakers who take money from oil companies.
But don’t expect the GOP to back off.
“The pipeline is a great issue for Republicans,” Harber said, “as they could be seen taking action to create jobs while the White House fails to do so.”