By Laura Barron-Lopez - 01/03/15 11:58 AM EST
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 McConnellRubio: GOP Congress could go in different direction than Trump Pelosi blasts GOP leaders for silence on Trump Reid: Groping accusations show Trump’s ‘sickness’ 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.
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 MurkowskiWriting in Mike Pence won’t do any good in these states GOP senators avoid Trump questions on rigged election Trump campaign left out of Alaska voter guide 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 HeitkampMoney for nothing: Rethinking CO2 Liberal groups urge Schumer to reject Bayh for Banking gavel Court ruling could be game changer for Dems in Nevada MORE (N.D.), Joe ManchinJoe ManchinTrump questions hound endangered Republican Dems to McConnell: Pass 'clean' extension of Iran sanctions Convicted ex-coal boss says he’s a ‘political prisoner’ MORE (W.Va.), Joe DonnellyJoe DonnellyGreat Lakes senators seek boost for maritime system Liberal groups urge Schumer to reject Bayh for Banking gavel A dozen senators call for crackdown on Chinese steel MORE (Ind.), Claire McCaskillClaire McCaskillMcCaskill offers Trump 'Mean Girls' advice Trump's taxes bump Miss Universe from headlines Dem on NYT report: Trump 'walks away with a golden ticket' MORE (Mo.), Jon TesterJon TesterCourt ruling could be game changer for Dems in Nevada Election-year politics: Senate Dems shun GOP vulnerables Democrats press Wells Fargo CEO for more answers on scandal MORE (Mont.), Mark WarnerMark WarnerPolicymakers face long road to financial technology regulation Liberal groups urge Schumer to reject Bayh for Banking gavel Why Yahoo's breach could turn the SEC into a cybersecurity tiger MORE (Va.) and Bob CaseyBob CaseyGreat Lakes senators seek boost for maritime system Help individuals with disabilities achieve the American Dream with the ABLE to Work Act A dozen senators call for crackdown on Chinese steel 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 LandrieuTrump’s implosion could cost GOP in Louisiana Senate race Louisiana needs Caroline Fayard as its new senator La. Senate contender books seven-figure ad buy 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 CarperYahoo hack spurs push for legislation Election-year politics: Senate Dems shun GOP vulnerables Overnight Healthcare: McConnell unveils new Zika package | Manchin defends daughter on EpiPens | Bill includes M for opioid crisis MORE (Del.), and Michael BennetMichael BennetSenate poll raises Republican hopes in Pennsylvania, Florida Podesta floated Bill Gates, Bloomberg as possible Clinton VPs GOP Senate candidate reverses course, says he’ll vote Trump 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.