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 McConnellShutdown risk grows over Flint Senate poised to override Obama veto Overnight Finance: Four days left to avert shutdown | Conservative group bucks spending bill | Lawmakers play catch-up on smartphone banking 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 MurkowskiOvernight Energy: Obama integrates climate change into national security planning GOP pressures Kerry on Russia's use of Iranian airbase Overnight Energy: Lawmakers kick off energy bill talks 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 HeitkampWeek ahead: Funding fight dominates Congress Overnight Finance: McConnell offers 'clean' funding bill | Dems pan proposal | Flint aid, internet measure not included | More heat for Wells Fargo | New concerns on investor visas Iran president hints at future prisoner swaps, cash settlements with US MORE (N.D.), Joe ManchinJoe ManchinDemocrat vows to go after opioid makers – including daughter's company Overnight Healthcare: McConnell unveils new Zika package | Manchin defends daughter on EpiPens | Bill includes M for opioid crisis Democrat defends daughter after tough EpiPen grilling MORE (W.Va.), Joe DonnellyJoe DonnellyDem presses Congress to pass veteran suicide measure Senate Democrats block defense funding bill for third time Are Senate Republicans facing an election wipeout? MORE (Ind.), Claire McCaskillClaire McCaskillFacebook steps up fight against fake news The Trail 2016: Off the sick bed McCaskill: Trump and Dr. Oz a 'marriage made in heaven' MORE (Mo.), Jon TesterJon TesterOvernight Healthcare: Mylan CEO to defend record on EpiPens | Medical cures bill delayed to lame duck | House GOP hopeful about Zika deal Tribes open new front in fight over pipelines Dem lawmakers: Clinton should have disclosed illness sooner MORE (Mont.), Mark WarnerMark WarnerOvernight Cybersecurity: Cyber questions for the debate | Dem wants Yahoo hack probe Dem senator urges SEC to investigate Yahoo Lawmakers play catch-up as smartphone banking surges MORE (Va.) and Bob CaseyBob CaseyDems to GOP: Help us fix ObamaCare Enough bickering, time to stay focused on important issues: Pennsylvania holds keys in Clinton-Trump tilt 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 LandrieuLouisiana needs Caroline Fayard as its new senator La. Senate contender books seven-figure ad buy Crowded field muddies polling 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 CarperOvernight Healthcare: McConnell unveils new Zika package | Manchin defends daughter on EpiPens | Bill includes M for opioid crisis Dems to GOP: Help us fix ObamaCare Overnight Finance: Trump promises millions of jobs | Obama taps Kasich to sell trade deal | Fed makes monetary policy video game | Trump vs. Ford MORE (Del.), and Michael BennetMichael BennetEconomists have a message: Clinton's policies are wrong for America Senate rivals gear up for debates Grassley pulling away from Dem challenger 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.