Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is talking with Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and other senators about voting on the Keystone XL pipeline next week.
Reid said Tuesday that he has had discussions with Republican Sens. John Hoeven (N.D.) and Rob Portman (Ohio) about linking a nonbinding amendment on Keystone to energy efficiency legislation that will come to the Senate floor next week.
A Senate Democratic aide said Reid has a tough decision to make on whether to set up a vote on a sense-of-the-Senate resolution or binding legislation.
Allowing vulnerable Democrats to vote on a bill approving Keystone could give them something to tout on the campaign trail, but approval of binding legislation could embarrass the White House.
It could lead to a veto by President Obama, and supporters don’t have the votes in Congress to override him.
The Senate approved a nonbinding resolution authorizing construction of Keystone last year with 62 votes. The House last year passed Keystone legislation, 241-175.
Reid said he is working to find a solution.
“I met with Landrieu and Hoeven and Portman in the last 24 hours trying to work something out,” he said during a Tuesday press conference.
He also complained that the pipeline’s proponents keep changing their demands, with some senators now urging a vote on binding legislation.
“Now they can’t decide what they want to vote on, so I can’t agree to something that I don’t know what it is,” Reid said.
“Originally, it was supposed to be a sense of the Senate. Now, they say they want an up-or-down [vote] on a piece of legislation. They can’t decide what it is,” he said.
Hoeven said lawmakers are discussing a potential deal that would set up a separate vote on Keystone.
“On Keystone, it may be an amendment, or we may negotiate for a stand-alone as part of the agreement,” he said.
Reid said he wanted to do what’s needed to save the energy efficiency bill, which is sponsored by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and Portman, from bogging down in an amendment fight.
“I’m open to anything that will move energy efficiency,” he said.
If a large group of centrist Democrats and Republicans view the Keystone language as too weak, they might vote against the entire Shaheen-Portman bill. However, if a majority of the Democratic caucus thinks the bill could pave the way for construction of the pipeline, they might also kill it, the aide said.
Landrieu, one of the most endangered incumbent senators, is pushing for legislative action in the wake of a decision by the Obama administration that likely delayed a decision on the $5.4 billion project until after the midterm elections.
The Keystone pipeline would carry oil sands from Canada to Gulf Coast refineries.
Senate Republican Conference Chairman John Thune (S.D.) said centrist Democrats facing tough reelections, such as Landrieu and Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) are eager to vote on Keystone.
“In this energy debate next week, there are going to be a lot of Democrats who want to vote for the Keystone pipeline, who probably want to vote for more natural gas exports to places like Eastern Europe,” he said.
“If we get into a full-blown debate on energy, a lot of Democrats are going to try and get well with their constituencies and be very hard-pressed to defend the president and their party’s position on some of those issues,” he added.
He dismissed a nonbinding vote on Keystone as “meaningless.”
Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) warned that a vote on Keystone “could affect the passage of this [energy efficiency] legislation.”
He said the controversial Keystone language should not be attached to the bipartisan Shaheen-Portman measure, one of the few bills that has a chance of making it to Obama’s desk this Congress.
“I think we want to get this bill done, and we think it should not be on this bill. I am one of those who don’t mind voting on different issues, but I would hope it would not interfere with this legislation moving forward,” he said.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Tuesday that Republicans want a vote on more than just Keystone.
“We haven’t had a full scale energy debate since 2007; we believe that this bill should have a process for consideration that allows four or five significant energy related amendments to be considered in the context,” McConnell said.
On top of Keystone, Republicans favor an amendment on Sen. John Barrasso’s (R-Wyo.) bill on liquefied natural gas exports to Eastern European countries and a coal related amendment.
The coal amendment would target the EPA’s proposed regulation to limit carbon emissions from power plants, which McConnell says is “designed to guarantee there is never another coal-generation plant built in America.”
Still, Keystone appeared to be the central focus of talks on Tuesday.
“We are interested in a real Keystone amendment,” McConnell said.
Cardin said the oil-sands pipeline has been the major topic in discussions among Democrats.
This story was updated at 8:54 p.m.