Senate GOP floats bill to bypass Obama and approve Keystone

Senate GOP leaders are flexing their constitutional muscles with a new push for approval of the Keystone XL oil sands pipeline.

Citing Congress's powers under the Commerce Clause, Senate Republicans floated legislation Monday that would bypass the Obama administration and approve TransCanada Corp.’s pipeline to carry oil sands crude from Alberta to Gulf Coast refineries.

The bill goes further than the GOP provision in December’s payroll tax cut deal, which simply imposed a deadline for a decision on the Obama administration — one that President Obama met early when he rejected the project on Jan. 18.

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“This new bill is a lot like the old one, but it makes it definitive that Congress has the authority to push the Keystone XL pipeline forward,” said Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), who sponsored the measure along with Sens. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.) and John Hoeven (R-N.D.).

Senators say they are buoyed by a recent Congressional Research Service legal analysis that Hoeven requested. The analysis found that while the executive branch has historically handled the approval of border-crossing facilities, Congress has the constitutional power to act as well.

“[I]f Congress chose to assert its authority in the area of border-crossing facilities, this would likely be considered within its constitutionally enumerated authority to regulate foreign commerce,” according to the analysis by four CRS attorneys.

The bill’s 44 sponsors include Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and other members of the GOP leadership team, as well as a lone Democrat: Sen. Joe Manchin (W.Va.).

Republicans, some conservative Democrats, major business groups and some unions say the pipeline would enhance U.S. energy security and create thousands of jobs.

“President Obama’s opposition is not in the best interest of the United States. The president has failed to lead but we will not stop trying to complete this critical supply line,” Lugar said in a statement.

Environmentalists bitterly oppose the project due to greenhouse gas emissions and other ecological damage from Alberta’s oil sands projects, fears of spills along the route and other concerns.

While the bill takes a new tack, Republicans are unlikely to win Senate passage, and the bill would almost certainly face a veto if the measure got to President Obama’s desk.

But it could nonetheless provide another political rallying point for Republicans — including the party's White House hopefuls — and major business groups that are using Keystone as grist for election-year attacks against Obama.

Republicans are moving along a number of fronts to keep pushing Keystone — and to keep Obama’s rejection of the project in the news.

Lawmakers are weighing options including a push to include Keystone provisions in the yearlong extension of the payroll tax cut extension that’s under negotiation.

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said Republicans in his chamber plan to attach Keystone provisions to upcoming infrastructure legislation.

House Energy and Commerce Committee Republicans are using a somewhat different strategy from that contained in the Senate bill.

They’re exploring Rep. Lee Terry’s (R-Neb.) plan that would take the decision away from the State Department and require the independent Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to issue a permit for Keystone XL.

However, in addition to Terry’s plan, Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas) last week introduced a version of the new Senate measure aimed at forcing approval of the project.

Obama, in rejecting the pipeline Jan. 18, said his decision was not based on the merits of the project, claiming instead that Republicans had forced his hand with an “arbitrary” deadline that prevented adequate review.

Republicans, for their part, say the project has been robustly vetted since TransCanada first applied in 2008, and also say the legislation provides time for the re-routing to avoid the ecologically sensitive Sand Hills region of Nebraska.

“[I]t requires the U.S. State Department to cooperate with the state of Nebraska to assist in rerouting in that state, which will be subject to the Nebraska governor’s agreement on the route within the state,” a summary states.

The White House had earlier sought to delay a decision until after the 2012 elections, and now that the pipeline permit has been formally rejected, has invited TransCanada Corp. to reapply.

Obama is seeking to prevent Keystone from becoming a political liability ahead of the 2012 elections by emphasizing his support for expanded oil-and-gas development.

This post was updated at 11:14 a.m.