Under fire from greens, Dem trio says Keystone vote was not an endorsement

A trio of Senate Democrats are insisting that their vote for a Keystone XL pipeline amendment last week was not an endorsement of the project.

Backers of the oil sands pipeline scored a major win Friday when 17 Democrats joined Republicans in a 62-37 vote in favor of Sen. John Hoeven’s (R-N.D.) amendment.

The amendment’s sponsors said it was a strong show of support for Keystone. But at least three senators who cast surprise “yes” votes — and angered environmentalists — have a different view of the amendment.

Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), through an aide, portrayed it as budgetary housekeeping.

“Sen. Carper continues to support letting the approval process by the Department of State and ultimately President Obama go forward,” said Carper spokesman Ian Sams in a statement.

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“He voted for the amendment to give budgetary flexibility if the project is approved, allowing us to incorporate any economic benefits we might see from the pipeline into the budget baseline,” he said.

The office of his Delaware colleague, Sen. Chris Coons (D), explained his "yes" vote in similar terms on the senator’s blog Friday evening.

“Senator Coons voted for an amendment to the budget that takes into account the existing process, and the reality that if the Administration approves this project it will have a budgetary impact,” the blog post stated.

Another Democratic backer of the amendment, Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), joined Carper and Coons in declining to cast the vote as an outright endorsement of Keystone.

“Senator Bennet believes the Keystone pipeline should go through the proper process and be judged on its merits,” said Bennet spokesman Adam Bozzi.

But sponsors and many backers of the amendment made very clear that they saw the amendment as an outright referendum on whether Keystone should be approved by the Obama administration.

Environmentalists certainly saw it that way, and are vowing to take action against the three senators. 

“Our supporters in Delaware, Florida, Colorado and elsewhere will be bird-dogging their Senators or visiting their offices to make their disappointment known and encouraging them to change their position. These Senators have clearly underestimated how strongly their constituents feel about this issue,” said Jamie Henn of the climate advocacy group 350.org earlier this week.

Activists protested outside Bennet’s Denver office on Tuesday.

The language in Hoeven’s Keystone amendment was crafted in the intricate budget-speak required for additions to the formal budget resolution — a format that gives senators some wiggle room on what it meant.

His amendment called for a "deficit-neutral reserve fund" to promote investment and job growth in the manufacturing, oil-and-gas and refining sectors.

Such language is commonplace for senators trying to wage policy fights through the nonbinding budget process.

Bennet, Coons and Carper were among the handful of Democrats who voted against a straightforward 2012 measure to approve Keystone that won 56 votes, but in favor of Hoeven's Keystone amendment during Friday’s budget debate.

Bennet, Carper and Coons are emphasizing their green energy backing at a time when activists are going after Democrats for pro-Keystone votes.

In contrast to his Keystone vote description, Coons’s blog uses stronger language to describe his votes in favor of green energy R&D and energy efficiency, and against a failed GOP amendment to thwart federal climate change regulations (check it all out here).

Carper’s spokesman bookended his description of the Keystone vote with statements noting Carper’s support for tougher measures to confront climate change, curb oil demand and support an “all of the above” energy approach that includes renewables and fossil fuels.

“[H]e strongly supports stronger car efficiency standards and incentives to move us away from gasoline and give us more choices at the pump. He also has been long supporter of climate change language that puts a price on carbon,” Sams, Carper’s spokesman, said.

And Bozzi, Bennet’s aide, similarly touted the senator’s broader energy views in response to an inquiry about the Keystone amendment vote.

“He supports a comprehensive approach to our energy policy and also voted for amendments supporting a carbon tax and EPA's authority to clean up power plants. Michael's priority is that — on the balance — new energy policies are avoiding more carbon pollution than they’re causing,” Bozzi said.

Here’s the full text of Hoeven's Keystone amendment:

The Chairman of the Committee on the Budget of the Senate may revise the allocations of a committee or committees, aggregates, and other appropriate levels in this resolution for 1 or more bills, joint resolutions, amendments, motions, or conference reports that may result in strong growth in manufacturing, oil and gas production, and refining sectors of the economy through the approval and construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline without raising new revenue, by the amounts provided in the legislation for those purposes, provided that the legislation would not increase the deficit over either the period of the total of fiscal years 2013 through 2018 or the period of the total of fiscal years 2013 through 2023.