By Alexander Bolton - 01/29/12 11:30 AM EST
Republicans are pressing Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (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.
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 Reid (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 Tester (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 Cardin (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 Reed (D-R.I.), Bob Casey (D-Pa.), Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), and John Barrasso (R-Wyo.).
Republicans in both chambers have discussed legislation that would allow construction on Keystone to begin immediately.
Sen. John Hoeven (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 Obama said in a statement.
This story has been updated at 4:40 p.m.