Senate names highway bill conferees, setting up showdown on Keystone

The Senate has selected lawmakers to negotiate with the House over transportation funding legislation, setting up the latest election-year battle over the Keystone XL oil sands pipeline.

The House version of the transportation bill approves a permit for TransCanada Corp.’s proposed pipeline to bring Canadian oil sands to Gulf Coast refineries.

But the Senate plan omits the measure, ensuring a collision over the pipeline — a project that's a top GOP priority —  as the House and Senate haggle over the transportation bill.

The agreement between Senate Democratic and GOP leaders creates a 14-person Senate delegation of eight Democrats and six Republicans. All six GOP senators voted for an unsuccessful amendment to the bill in March that requires approval of the pipeline.

The measure attracted 56 votes, including 11 Democrats, when 60 were needed.

Among the eight Democratic conferees, only Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) voted for the failed Keystone amendment last month.

Baucus supports the pipeline project that is slated to carry oil from the Bakken formation in Montana and North Dakota, where production is booming. But his office hinted that Baucus is not drawing a line in the sand over the project in the conference talks.

“No one is a bigger supporter of the Keystone Pipeline than Sen. Baucus, and he is looking for every opportunity to help move the project forward. But, Sen. Baucus will not put more than 1 million American jobs supported by the highway bill in jeopardy unless he’s sure whatever Keystone measure proposed has the legs to pass Congress, be signed into law, and stand up to legal scrutiny, so we don't end up delaying the project even further by getting it tied up in the courts,” his office said in a statement.

President Obama threatened to veto the House transportation measure over inclusion of the pipeline, which the White House contends needs more federal review before a cross-border permit can be granted.

The administration in January rejected a permit for the project. But the White House stressed that its decision was not on the “merits” but instead because Republicans had demanded an “arbitrary” permit deadline in a late 2011 payroll tax cut bill.

The administration has invited TransCanada to reapply for the cross-border permit, which the company intends to do.

Here is the whole list of Senate conferees:

Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) Max Baucus (D-Mont.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Tim Johnson (D-S.D.), Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), James Inhofe (R-Okla.), David Vitter (R-La.), Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) and John Hoeven (R-N.D.).