GOP prepares Keystone blitz

GOP prepares Keystone blitz
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Republicans are putting the Keystone XL pipeline at the top of the agenda as they seek to move a stack of legislation to President Obama’s desk in 2015.

Incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellGOP grapples with repeal of popular ObamaCare policy New DNC chairman wastes no time going after Trump Dem 2020 hopefuls lead pack in opposing Trump Cabinet picks MORE (R-Ky.) has promised that a vote on approving the $8 billion oil sands project would be his first order of business in the majority, and legislation is set to move quickly in the opening days of the new Congress.

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A Senate panel will hold a hearing on legislation to approve construction of the pipeline next week, followed by a markup on Thursday, raising the potential for a final vote in mid-January.

If all goes as planned, Keystone proponents will have the filibuster-proof majority needed to get a bill to Obama, setting the stage for what could be his first veto in the new Republican Congress. But securing a veto-proof majority will be challenging in both the House and the Senate.

“The Senate needs to get back to work, and Leader McConnell chose Keystone, a bipartisan infrastructure bill, as the first for consideration because a final decision on this pipeline project is grossly overdue,” said McConnell spokesman Michael Brumas.

“This widely supported, bipartisan proposal to approve construction of the pipeline will help grow our economy and put thousands of Americans back to work,” Brumas added.

It remains to be seen how quickly a Keystone bill can advance, given McConnell’s vow to return to an open amendment process, which can often result in lengthy debates and floor votes.  

But if and when a bill makes it through the Senate, it is expected to sail through the House, where the GOP majority has voted repeatedly to green light the controversial Canada-to-Texas project.

Indeed, the off-again, on-again federal review of the oil sands project has been a major point of contention for Republicans throughout Obama’s six-years in office.

Republicans, the oil industry and some Democrats and labor unions have ripped the White House over the sluggish permitting process for Keystone, arguing a project that will boost the economy has been needlessly delayed.

Obama has warned that Congress should not circumvent the State Department process, arguing agencies need to time to determine whether the pipeline is environmentally and economically sound once litigation in Nebraska is resolved.

The president has sent signals in recent weeks that he might reject the project.

In December, Obama said building Keystone would not “not even have a nominal benefit” to consumers — a key point, as the federal review is tasked with determining whether the project is in the national interest.

“It’s very good for Canadian oil companies, and it’s good for the Canadian oil industry but it’s not going to be a huge benefit to U.S. consumers,” Obama said.

Senior administration officials say Obama is laying the groundwork to reject the project, according to The Wall Street Journal. That decision would thrill environmental groups, who have waged a long campaign against it.

Republicans are undeterred, and are hopeful that their bill will draw bipartisan support.

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will hold a hearing on the Keystone bill on Jan. 7, with the work needed to get the bill to the floor taking place the following day.

After that, all signs point toward McConnell bringing the bill to the floor as soon as possible, according to Robert Dillon, a spokesman for Energy committee chairwoman Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa MurkowskiGOP governors confront Medicaid divide GOP senator won't vote to defund Planned Parenthood A guide to the committees: Senate MORE (R-Alaska).

Still, one top GOP aide said it is safe to assume the Keystone bill could take days or even to finish weeks.

It’s possible that Republicans will dangle a bipartisan energy efficiency bill in front of Democrats to sweeten the deal and speed up the process.

Without some kind of compromise, the bill is expected to pass with 61 votes, with all 54 Republicans voting in favor. Seven Democrats who have supported Keystone are expected to vote with Republicans, putting the count at 61.

The expected Democratic “yes” votes on the pipeline are Sens. Heidi HeitkampHeidi HeitkampDem 2020 hopefuls lead pack in opposing Trump Cabinet picks The buzzword everyone can agree on in the health debate: RESTORE Greens launch ads against two GOP senators for Pruitt votes MORE (N.D.), Joe ManchinJoe ManchinDem 2020 hopefuls lead pack in opposing Trump Cabinet picks Manchin: Sanders backers should challenge me in Dem primary Greens launch ads against two GOP senators for Pruitt votes MORE (W.Va.), Joe DonnellyJoe DonnellyThe DNC in the age of Trump: 5 things the new chairman needs to do Poll: Senate should confirm Gorsuch A guide to the committees: Senate MORE (Ind.), Claire McCaskillClaire McCaskillDem 2020 hopefuls lead pack in opposing Trump Cabinet picks Manchin: Sanders backers should challenge me in Dem primary The DNC in the age of Trump: 5 things the new chairman needs to do MORE (Mo.), Jon TesterJon TesterPoll: Senate should confirm Gorsuch A guide to the committees: Senate GOP loses top Senate contenders MORE (Mont.), Mark WarnerMark WarnerTop Senate Dem: ‘Grave concerns’ about independence of Russia probe Dems worry too much about upsetting others. That needs to stop. Washington-area lawmakers request GAO report on DC Metro MORE (Va.) and Bob CaseyBob CaseyA guide to the committees: Senate GOP loses top Senate contenders How many GOP senators will stand up to megadonor DeVos? Just 2. MORE (Pa.).

Environmentalists and opponents of the project have targeted Casey in previous Keystone votes, but failed to change his mind in November, when he supported a pro-Keystone bill from Sen. Mary LandrieuMary LandrieuFive unanswered questions after Trump's upset victory Pavlich: O’Keefe a true journalist Trump’s implosion could cost GOP in Louisiana Senate race MORE (D-La.).

Opponents of the project are vowing they won’t go down without a fight.

During the November vote, green groups staged protests in the Washington, D.C. offices of Democratic Sens. Tom CarperTom CarperA guide to the committees: Senate Senate advances Trump's Commerce pick Warren: Trump's EPA pick the 'attorney general for Exxon' MORE (Del.), and Michael BennetMichael BennetA guide to the committees: Senate Senate advances Trump's Commerce pick Senate Dems move to nix Trump's deportation order MORE (Colo.), both of whom decided to vote for the pipeline in the days leading up to the vote.

If Carper and Bennet were to join with supporters of the pipeline again, it would bring the vote count to 63 — four shy of the total needed to override a presidential veto.

The House in November passed a Keystone bill, 252-161, far short of a veto-proof majority. While the GOP picked up 13 seats in the midterm election, it looks like House Republicans are still short of that goal. Thirty-one House Democrats approved the Keystone measure in the lame-duck session.

“The Democrats voting with the climate deniers on Keystone XL have put themselves in a precarious position,” said Jason Kowalski, policy director for climate group 350.org.

“Last month activists showed up at their state and DC offices with banners saying, ‘If you're not a climate denier, don't vote like one.’ Climate activists will continue to make pro-Keystone XL votes a very uncomfortable place for lawmakers who claim to believe in science.”

350.org and the Natural Resources Defense Council said they would continue to pressure lawmakers who back the pipeline, but wouldn’t give specifics on who they plan to target this time around.