GOP wants Sen. Baucus to go rogue on Keystone XL oil sands pipeline

Republicans are pressing Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max BaucusMax Sieben BaucusFarmers hit Trump on trade in new ad Feinstein’s trouble underlines Democratic Party’s shift to left 2020 Dems pose a big dilemma for Schumer MORE (D-Mont.) to buck his leadership and use his authority in the payroll tax conference to green-light the Keystone XL oil sands pipeline.

Baucus has told business leaders in Montana that winning authorization for the transnational pipeline is one of his highest priorities for 2012.

Republicans say Baucus, as co-chairman of the payroll tax conference, has the power to include Keystone language in must-pass legislation and will pressure him to act.

“The quickest and surest way to get the pipeline going is for the Democratic chairman of the conference committee to put it into a must-do piece of legislation, the payroll tax package,” said a senior Senate Republican aide.

Senate Democrats think Baucus will stick with the caucus and oppose the inclusion of language to force President Obama’s hand on Keystone but they acknowledge the senior Montana lawmaker could go rogue, as he has in the past. 

“Max Baucus has been around here longer than I have, and he is certainly a free agent,” Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidTrump presses GOP to change Senate rules Only thing Defense’s UFO probe proves is power of political favors Nevada Democrat accused of sexual harassment reconsiders retirement: report MORE (D-Nev.) told reporters.

Some Senate Democrats have questioned Baucus’s reliability on caucus positions ever since he split with the Democratic Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) to support the 2001 Bush tax cuts.

Daschle angrily told Baucus that his colleagues would remember the deal with Republicans, which briefly earned him the nickname, “Max Baucus, the one-man caucus.”

Baucus has since redeemed himself in the eyes of many Democrats by taking the lead in defeating former President George W. Bush’s 2005 effort to privatize Social Security. Baucus has also helped lead Senate Democrats in fighting for healthcare reform and the Children’s Health Insurance Program. He supports letting the Bush-era tax rates for the nation’s highest income earners expire.

Reid this week noted that other Democrats support the Keystone pipeline, including Sen. Jon TesterJonathan (Jon) TesterSenate GOP: We will grow our majority in midterms Senate passes bipartisan bill to roll back Dodd-Frank Green Party Senate candidate was previously on state GOP payroll: report MORE (D-Mont.), and expressed uncertainty about how the issue would be resolved in conference talks with the House.

“We'll just have to wait and see how that comes out,” Reid said.

A Baucus aide said the lawmaker would try to get the Keystone project started using whatever tools or legislative vehicles are at his disposal, including the payroll tax bill, available.

“Senator Baucus will be looking for every opportunity to get Keystone done, whether now or through any other appropriate vehicle,” said the aide.

Congress has until the beginning of March to authorize a yearlong extension of the payroll tax holiday. It is viewed as the most important legislation lawmakers must consider before the election.

Baucus has been a vocal proponent of the pipeline project at home.

“There is absolutely no reason we cannot start putting Montanans to work on the Keystone XL pipeline right away. We’ve done three-years of analysis and worked hard on strict environmental considerations – now it’s time to move forward on the jobs and energy security our nation deserves, and I’ll keep fighting tooth and nail until that happens,” Baucus said earlier this month, according to a Missoula radio station.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee has stepped up pressure on Baucus.

“Sen. Baucus is in a uniquely powerful position and if Keystone is the priority that Jon Tester and other Democrats claim it is, then they have the ability to do something about it by inserting language to move it forward,” said Brian Walsh, a spokesman for the GOP campaign committee.

Some Democrats say that Keystone is not as potent a political issue as Republicans claim and voice confidence Baucus will not defy Obama and the Democratic leadership by attaching Keystone language to the payroll tax deal.

“The president is pretty definitive on this,” said Sen. Ben CardinBenjamin (Ben) Louis Cardin Senate Dem hoping Pompeo now has 'greater appreciation' for balancing national security, civil rights Time for the Pentagon to create a system to better track its spending Trump, lawmakers cautious on North Korea signal MORE (Md.), one of the conferees in the payroll tax negotiations with the House.

The Senate conferees include four Democrats and three Republicans. The defection of a single Democrat would allow Senate Republicans to dictate the Senate’s position on a particular issue in the talks.

The other conferees are Sens. Jack ReedJohn (Jack) Francis ReedOvernight Defense: Senate sides with Trump on military role in Yemen | Dem vets push for new war authorization on Iraq anniversary | General says time isn't 'right' for space corps Senate sides with Trump on providing Saudi military support Overnight Defense: Trump unveils new sanctions against Russia | Key Republicans back VA chief amid controversy | Trump gives boost to military 'space force' MORE (D-R.I.), Bob CaseyRobert (Bob) Patrick CaseyHouse GOP frets over Pennsylvania race Do the numbers add up for Democrat Conor Lamb in Pennsylvania? Poll: Five Senate Dems would lose to GOP challenger if elections held today MORE (D-Pa.), Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), Mike CrapoMichael (Mike) Dean CrapoPower struggle threatens to sink bank legislation Overnight Regulation: FDA rule to limit nicotine in cigarettes moves forward | Court tosses Obama financial adviser rule | House GOP threatens to hold up Senate Dodd-Frank rollback Overnight Finance: House threatens to freeze Senate Dodd-Frank rollback | New Russia sanctions | Trump vs. Trudeau on trade | Court tosses Obama financial adviser rule MORE (R-Idaho), and John BarrassoJohn Anthony BarrassoSenators target 'gag clauses' that hide potential savings on prescriptions USPTO needs to be forced to do its job and reject bad patents Senate Dems propose tax cut rollback to pay for infrastructure MORE (R-Wyo.).

Republicans in both chambers have discussed legislation that would allow construction on Keystone to begin immediately.

Sen. John HoevenJohn Henry HoevenTrump’s economic policies spur GOP angst Crop sale incentive program is wrong policy for trade and security Sen. Steve Daines knows the ski slopes, residents MORE (R-N.D.) is drafting legislation to permit Keystone, citing a report by the Congressional Research Service that found Congress has power to authorize the pipeline.

The two-month extension of the payroll tax holiday Congress passed in December included a provision forcing the administration to make an expedited decision on Keystone.

Obama denied the permit to build the pipeline earlier this month and blamed Republicans for killing the project by rushing the process and not giving his administration enough time to assess the environmental impact.

"The rushed and arbitrary deadline insisted on by Congressional Republicans prevented a full assessment of the pipeline’s impact, especially the health and safety of the American people, as well as our environment," President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaRivals and consumers will rein in Facebook, not regulation Obamas send handwritten note to Parkland students: 'We will be there for you' Water has experienced a decade of bipartisan success MORE said in a statement.

This story has been updated at 4:40 p.m.