GOP wants Sen. Baucus to go rogue on Keystone XL oil sands pipeline

Republicans are pressing Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max BaucusMax Sieben BaucusOvernight Defense: McCain honored in Capitol ceremony | Mattis extends border deployment | Trump to embark on four-country trip after midterms Congress gives McCain the highest honor Judge boots Green Party from Montana ballot in boost to Tester MORE (D-Mont.) to buck his leadership and use his authority in the payroll tax conference to green-light the Keystone XL oil sands pipeline.

Baucus has told business leaders in Montana that winning authorization for the transnational pipeline is one of his highest priorities for 2012.

Republicans say Baucus, as co-chairman of the payroll tax conference, has the power to include Keystone language in must-pass legislation and will pressure him to act.

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“The quickest and surest way to get the pipeline going is for the Democratic chairman of the conference committee to put it into a must-do piece of legislation, the payroll tax package,” said a senior Senate Republican aide.

Senate Democrats think Baucus will stick with the caucus and oppose the inclusion of language to force President Obama’s hand on Keystone but they acknowledge the senior Montana lawmaker could go rogue, as he has in the past. 

“Max Baucus has been around here longer than I have, and he is certainly a free agent,” Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidNo, it is not racist to question birthright citizenship McConnell rejects Democrats' 'radical movement' to abolish filibuster Harry Reid: 'Decriminalizing border crossings is not something that should be at the top of the list' MORE (D-Nev.) told reporters.

Some Senate Democrats have questioned Baucus’s reliability on caucus positions ever since he split with the Democratic Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) to support the 2001 Bush tax cuts.



Daschle angrily told Baucus that his colleagues would remember the deal with Republicans, which briefly earned him the nickname, “Max Baucus, the one-man caucus.”


Baucus has since redeemed himself in the eyes of many Democrats by taking the lead in defeating former President George W. Bush’s 2005 effort to privatize Social Security. Baucus has also helped lead Senate Democrats in fighting for healthcare reform and the Children’s Health Insurance Program. He supports letting the Bush-era tax rates for the nation’s highest income earners expire.

Reid this week noted that other Democrats support the Keystone pipeline, including Sen. Jon TesterJonathan (Jon) TesterNative American advocates question 2020 Democrats' commitment House Democrats targeting six more Trump districts for 2020 Budget deal sparks scramble to prevent shutdown MORE (D-Mont.), and expressed uncertainty about how the issue would be resolved in conference talks with the House.

“We'll just have to wait and see how that comes out,” Reid said.

A Baucus aide said the lawmaker would try to get the Keystone project started using whatever tools or legislative vehicles are at his disposal, including the payroll tax bill, available.

“Senator Baucus will be looking for every opportunity to get Keystone done, whether now or through any other appropriate vehicle,” said the aide.

Congress has until the beginning of March to authorize a yearlong extension of the payroll tax holiday. It is viewed as the most important legislation lawmakers must consider before the election.

Baucus has been a vocal proponent of the pipeline project at home.

“There is absolutely no reason we cannot start putting Montanans to work on the Keystone XL pipeline right away. We’ve done three-years of analysis and worked hard on strict environmental considerations – now it’s time to move forward on the jobs and energy security our nation deserves, and I’ll keep fighting tooth and nail until that happens,” Baucus said earlier this month, according to a Missoula radio station.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee has stepped up pressure on Baucus.

“Sen. Baucus is in a uniquely powerful position and if Keystone is the priority that Jon Tester and other Democrats claim it is, then they have the ability to do something about it by inserting language to move it forward,” said Brian Walsh, a spokesman for the GOP campaign committee.

Some Democrats say that Keystone is not as potent a political issue as Republicans claim and voice confidence Baucus will not defy Obama and the Democratic leadership by attaching Keystone language to the payroll tax deal.

“The president is pretty definitive on this,” said Sen. Ben CardinBenjamin (Ben) Louis CardinAmerica is in desperate need of infrastructure investment: Senate highway bill a step in the right direction Financial aid fraud is wrong — but overcorrection could hurt more students Democrats denounce Trump's attack on Cummings: 'These are not the words of a patriot' MORE (Md.), one of the conferees in the payroll tax negotiations with the House.

The Senate conferees include four Democrats and three Republicans. The defection of a single Democrat would allow Senate Republicans to dictate the Senate’s position on a particular issue in the talks.

The other conferees are Sens. Jack ReedJohn (Jack) Francis ReedSenate Democrats push for arms control language in defense policy bill What the gun safety debate says about Washington Senators ask for committee vote on 'red flag' bills after shootings MORE (D-R.I.), Bob CaseyRobert (Bob) Patrick CaseyThe Hill's Morning Report - Progressives, centrists clash in lively Democratic debate Democrats press Trump Treasury picks on donor disclosure guidelines Pennsylvania school district turns down local businessman's offer to pay off student lunch debts MORE (D-Pa.), Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), Mike CrapoMichael (Mike) Dean CrapoA US-UK free trade agreement can hold the Kremlin to account Oversight Republicans demand answers on Capital One data breach On The Money: Fed cuts rates for first time since financial crisis | Trump rips Fed after chief casts doubt on future cuts | Stocks slide | Senate kicks budget vote amid scramble for GOP support MORE (R-Idaho), and John BarrassoJohn Anthony BarrassoIf Democrats want gun control, they must first concede defeat Conway: Republican concerns about gun reform 'all reconcilable' Five proposals Congress is eyeing after mass shootings MORE (R-Wyo.).

Republicans in both chambers have discussed legislation that would allow construction on Keystone to begin immediately.

Sen. John HoevenJohn Henry HoevenPoll: McConnell is most unpopular senator McConnell ups pressure on White House to get a budget deal Senators introduce bill to prevent border agency from selling personal data MORE (R-N.D.) is drafting legislation to permit Keystone, citing a report by the Congressional Research Service that found Congress has power to authorize the pipeline.

The two-month extension of the payroll tax holiday Congress passed in December included a provision forcing the administration to make an expedited decision on Keystone.

Obama denied the permit to build the pipeline earlier this month and blamed Republicans for killing the project by rushing the process and not giving his administration enough time to assess the environmental impact.

"The rushed and arbitrary deadline insisted on by Congressional Republicans prevented a full assessment of the pipeline’s impact, especially the health and safety of the American people, as well as our environment," President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaTrump on his 'chosen one' remark: 'It was sarcasm' Kentucky basketball coach praises Obama after golf round: 'He is a really serious golfer' Biden evokes 1968, asks voters to imagine if Obama had been assassinated MORE said in a statement.

This story has been updated at 4:40 p.m.