Energy & Environment

How the Keystone bill died


Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) told reporters on Monday night that she had the 60 votes she needed to approve the Keystone XL oil pipeline.

But secretly, she knew she was one short.

{mosads}Behind the scenes, Landrieu furiously lobbied Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), hoping he’d become her 60th vote.

She also targeted Sen. Angus King, the independent from Maine, and the Democratic senators due to retire at the end of the year, Sens. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), according to lawmakers familiar with the negotiations.   

She hoped a member of the Senate Democratic leadership, most likely Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), would cross the party’s base and cast a “yes” vote that could save her Senate career.

It was a big gamble. Getting enough votes to advance Keystone would give her a victory to talk about in the run-up to her Dec. 6 runoff election against Rep. Bill Cassidy (R-La.). Falling short would undermine her campaign argument that she deserves reelection because of her Senate clout.

In the end, Landrieu’s “hail Mary” fell short, and not a single one of the eight Democratic senators on her list came through.

“There were eight potential Democratic ‘yeses.’ You’d think she could’ve gotten one of them,” said a Democratic senator who worked with Landrieu to advance the Keystone authorization.

A rumor circulated among Democratic senators that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) advised Landrieu that it wouldn’t be wise to bring Keystone to the floor for a high-profile vote if she wasn’t sure she could get 60. Many lawmakers were incredulous that she would take such a big risk only weeks away from her run-off.

“I don’t know what Mary was thinking,” one lawmaker said, requesting anonymity to discuss private discussions in the caucus.

Landrieu told reporters last week that she “didn’t ask for permission” from Reid.

Reid said he never counseled Landrieu not to push the bill onto the floor. He said he would do everything he could to support her but warned he would vote against it.

“That was her choice. I supported her all the way. I just couldn’t vote for it,” he said.

Landrieu is behind Cassidy in polls, and appeared to feel the gamble was worth the risk.

And her colleagues cooperated by agreeing by unanimous consent to have a vote on the bill, an unusual coup for a senator outside the leadership, especially for legislation as controversial as Keystone.

Although Reid did not support the bill, he decided not to stop it from coming to the floor as he had at other times in the 113th Congress. He gave Landrieu another bit of help, according to one Democratic senator, by not issuing a formal alert known as a hotline letting colleagues know that she was seeking unanimous consent for a vote.

The Democratic lawmaker who grumbled about the lack of an alert said he would have objected had he received it.

In truth, Landrieu’s request was not much of a surprise.

She was on the floor throughout the afternoon of Nov. 12, and repeatedly said she would request a vote. She even delayed it by an hour to give Republicans more time to mull their options.

She made a concession to Republicans by agreeing that if the Senate passed her bill, the version that would be sent to President Obama’s desk would be the one sponsored by Cassidy.

Landrieu said she was confident that she would prevail but her allies were less certain.

“I knew we had 59, I didn’t think I’d know the answer to that until we rolled it,” said Sen. John Hoeven (N.D.), the Republican co-sponsor of the bill.

She scored two small victories early when she persuaded Sens. Tom Carper (D-Del.) and Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) to vote “yes.”

Carper said she moved him with a soft sell.

“She actually made me think when she asked me to vote ‘yes.’ She made me sit down and think. I didn’t say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ at the time. I said, ‘Well, let me think about it,’ ” Carper said. “It’s been six years since the application [for the pipeline] was filed.

“Meanwhile while we’re waiting for the wheels of justice to turn on this application [and] the litigation, we’re not able to make progress on energy conservation legislation,” he said, citing an energy efficiency bill that stalled earlier this year.

Turning Carper sent a ripple of fear through environmental groups that were fighting the bill.

“She had a real shot of flipping people,” said a top legislative director with one green group opposed to Keystone.

“She was damn close and she was down to one vote,” the source said. “I never underestimate the powers of Mary Landrieu.”

Landrieu and her allies thought Coons was the next most likely Democrat to flip because he would feel pressure to join Carper, his home-state colleague.

But a senator who worked on wooing Coons said he insisted on getting a concession from Republicans to advance one of his own bills, the Master Limited Partnerships Parity Act. 

The legislation would give renewable energy producers the ability to gain the same tax advantages that oil, natural gas and coal ventures reap through special partnerships.

Republicans could not agree because Coons’s bill would have cost $1.3 billion over 10 years, according to a Joint Committee Taxation score from last year.

Coons spokesman Ian Koski, however, disputed that account as a “rumor” that’s “just not accurate.”

Coons said Landrieu made a personal appeal to him.

“She made a policy appeal and a personal appeal,” he said.

In the end, he listened to the concerns of constituents and “long-time friends” in the environmental community.

Landrieu turned to King as another potential flip, but the independent lawmaker said the pro-Keystone coalition overestimated how likely he was to join them.

“I said I was a probable ‘no,’” he said, musing that might have given them hope that he was still in play.

Republicans thought if Landrieu could move Coons or King or another Democrat to “yes” that Durbin would give them political cover by becoming the 61st vote in favor.

Durbin declined to comment: “I’m not going to get into analysis.”

With the clock winding down and the 60th vote still elusive, Landrieu delivered an emotional appeal during the Democratic Caucus lunch meeting on Tuesday.

Democratic senators said Landrieu made a heartfelt plea on policy and personal grounds.

But for most Democrats, their friendship with her wasn’t enough to overcome their serious policy reservations about approving Keystone — not to mention the political dangers of voting “yes.”

“The phone lines in my office are burning up and all the calls are against Keystone,” said one Democratic senator.

Franz A. Matzner, associate director of government affairs for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said environmental groups worked hard to keep the pressure on.

“We worked to make sure this wasn’t a behind closed doors, purely politicized vote. There was a lot of hard advocacy to make sure the facts weren’t forgotten,” he said.

“There was nowhere to hide on this vote.”

After the vote failed on Tuesday evening, a group of Democratic senators including Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) went to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee office to make fundraising phone calls to help Landrieu’s campaign.

But the political damage had been done, according to a Democratic aide who pointed to negative headlines that dominated Louisiana’s papers on Wednesday morning.

The Daily Advertiser in Lafayette declared in its front-page headline, “Landrieu takes a hit on pipeline,” while The Times of Shreveport showed a picture of Landrieu walking away from a podium with her head bowed under the headline, “Vote on pipeline bill a blow to Landrieu.”

—Peter Sullivan contributed 

Tags Angus King Chris Coons Harry Reid Keystone Mary Landrieu

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