GOP revives pipeline push in highway bill

House and Senate Republicans are using battles over high-profile transportation bills this week to demand construction of the Keystone XL oil sands pipeline.

The GOP sees the battle over Keystone as an election-season political winner, but faces long odds of attaching pipeline provisions in the Senate, much less winning President Obama’s signature.

{mosads}The House version of the massive transportation package, slated for a vote this week, includes provisions to force a permit for TransCanada Corp.’s proposed Alberta-to-Texas pipeline.

Several Senate lawmakers backing the controversial oil pipeline filed an amendment Monday authorizing construction of the project, a more aggressive stance than earlier legislation that simply mandated a federal decision deadline.

The moves underscore the GOP’s determination to promote the pipeline and attack the Obama administration for rejecting a permit in January. 

Republicans in both chambers, along with the GOP candidates for president, have consistently bashed Obama for his decision, which they argue will cost the country jobs.

It is unclear whether the Keystone measure  — one of scores of proposed additions to the highway package — will come up for a vote in the Senate, but backers are hopeful.

“We believe Keystone is an important infrastructure project for this country. We will continue to work with leadership and all our colleagues to get a vote on the amendment and get it passed,” said Ryan Bernstein, a senior aide to Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.), who filed the amendment with Sens. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.) and David Vitter (R-La.).

A spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said that “Keystone jobs are a priority” but declined to comment on whether GOP leaders would prioritize the amendment during the highway bill fight, noting “we haven’t made any announcements on amendments.”

Aides to Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) did not respond to a request for comment on whether he would allow a vote. Reid has criticized the proposed pipeline, but a number of conservative Democrats back the project.

The Senate GOP amendment mirrors a bill they introduced in late January to authorize Keystone that has 45 total sponsors, including members of the Senate’s GOP leadership team and a lone Democrat in Sen. Joe Manchin (W.Va.). 

The House bill differs slightly from the Senate plan by directing the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to issue a permit.

Keystone XL would bring oil from Alberta’s massive tar sands projects to Gulf Coast refineries. It’s also envisioned to carry oil from the Bakken formation in North Dakota and Montana, where production is booming.

Pipeline backers — a group that includes most Republicans, some Democrats, major business groups and several unions — call the project a way to create jobs and boost energy security. 

But critics, who call job estimates inflated, say it’s a bad idea, citing greenhouse gas emissions and other damage from Alberta’s tar sands projects, fears of spills along the route and other concerns. The project faces bitter opposition from environmentalists and liberal Democrats.

Environmental groups announced an effort Monday to flood the Senate with 500,000 email messages over the next 24 hours urging lawmakers to oppose efforts to require a permit for the pipeline.

The White House pleased environmentalists by rejecting the project last month. 

President Obama stressed, however, that he was not rejecting the permit on the project’s merits, but instead because the Feb. 21 deadline Republicans demanded left too little time to complete a review.

Republicans say the project has been robustly studied already.

The Obama administration has invited TransCanada to reapply for a permit, which the company intends to do. 

Forcing Keystone’s approval faces long odds in the Senate, and lacks support from the White House. 

But Republicans are keen to continue pushing Keystone as a political messaging vehicle.

“We’re going to keep coming back at it with different versions, but I think probably the only way we’re going to get the Keystone pipeline started is to defeat Barack Obama,” McConnell told the conservative publication Human Events earlier in February.

Sen. John Thune (S.D.), a member of the Senate GOP’s leadership team, said last week that Republicans see Keystone as a strong issue for them.

“As far as we are concerned, we think that when we are talking about the Keystone pipeline, we are on offense, because I think it is a huge issue of tremendous import for the American people, so we want to do whatever we can to advance it, but we want to be smart about that too and pick the best vehicle,” he told reporters in the Capitol. 

The pipeline also exploits political divisions between conservative and liberal Democrats. 

Democrats including Manchin, Mary Landrieu (La.), Mark Begich (Alaska) and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (Mont.) support the pipeline. 

Baucus, however, has warned that he believes attaching Keystone to the highway package could “kill” the transportation bill.

This story was updated at 5:55 a.m.

Tags Barack Obama David Vitter Harry Reid Joe Manchin John Hoeven John Thune Mark Begich Mary Landrieu Max Baucus Mitch McConnell

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