Now that President Obama has vetoed the Keystone XL pipeline bill, the question is: What did this effort accomplish? Was it just a waste of everyone's time and energy?
In short, the answer is "no." All sides in the contentious debate over the extension of an existing oil pipeline that could increase U.S. oil imports from Canada, already the largest foreign oil supplier to the United States, have sent signals in the past few weeks and these will be politically potent in the months ahead.
It is true that the bill's supporters in Congress failed to reach a veto-proof majority of two-thirds of the members in the House and Senate in support of the bill. But both chambers demonstrated bipartisan support for the measure. The Senate voted in favor of the bill by a 62-36 margin, and the House approved the bill by 270-152.
In doing so, congressional Republicans put their votes on record in favor of the popular energy pipeline, knowing that the vote would be available to their opponents in 2016 and beyond. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) made this vote an early priority, confident that the public support for the project and what it symbolizes in terms of jobs and lower energy prices would endure.
At the same time, congressional Republicans demonstrated that they could pass bipartisan legislation. Even if the president vetoes the bill, Republicans have used the Keystone XL pipeline to show voters hungry for change that this is what change would look like if you support Republicans and sensible Democrats in 2016. Next up will come bills to repeal and replace ObamaCare, which will also earn a veto, but will help to redefine the Obama administration as obstructionist and position Republicans as the party of constructive, bipartisan change.
The White House has also sent a signal by vetoing the Keystone XL bill. President Obama made it his third veto, and first since 2010, to show that he was still relevant, and not such a lame duck after all. His reluctance to approve the presidential permit for the pipeline will be part of his claim to a legacy that environmentalists and others in his political base will appreciate.
It should be expected that Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper will respond to the president's veto by sending signals of his own. Canada will have a federal election later this year, and Harper's job is on the line. He will push back, if only to show that he won't allow misinformation about the project, which has become a Canadian foreign policy priority, to go unchallenged. Even before the veto, Canadian Ambassador to the United States Gary Doer, a social democrat and environmentalist and former Manitoba premier, denounced outdated facts and figures in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's statement that the carbon emissions of the oil sands ought to be counted against the project in the next State Department assessment.
The escalation of rhetoric between Washington and Ottawa will continue. Obama has been increasingly sarcastic and undiplomatic toward the Harper government on the subject of Keystone. Yet the bilateral relationship between the two countries continues to be healthy in other areas: Canadian troops and pilots are supporting the United States against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Iraq, and bilateral initiatives on border and regulatory cooperation are proceeding well. Harper may take the signal from this that he has little to lose by punching back against the White House.
All this suggests a remarkable stability underlying the heated rhetoric coming from all sides in the wake of the Keystone XL veto. Congress voted, the president vetoed and Canada voiced its case again. The Keystone pipeline remains unlikely to obtain the necessary U.S. permit before there is a new occupant in the White House in 2017.
And yet, Congress may have sent a signal with this Keystone XL vote that will continue to resonate as Americans make their choices for the next president and the 116th Congress too.
Sands is senior research professor and director of the Center for Canadian Studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies and a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. He is also G. Robert Ross Distinguished Professor of Business at Western Washington University.