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Senate votes highlight Dem divisions over Keystone pipeline, carbon taxes

Senate votes on climate change and the Keystone XL oil pipeline laid bare divisions among Democrats — and underscored why the White House, not Congress, will be where the critical climate decisions reside in President Obama’s second term.

Several votes during the freewheeling debate over a nonbinding budget plan provided a political barometer of where the chamber, including vulnerable Democrats, stand on the topics.

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Advocates of the proposed pipeline scored a symbolic victory Friday when 62 lawmakers voted for an amendment backing the project to bring oil from Canadian tar sands projects to Gulf Coast refineries.

Seventeen Democrats supported Sen. John HoevenJohn Henry HoevenOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Barrasso to seek top spot on Energy and Natural Resources Committee | Forest Service finalizes rule weakening environmental review of its projects | Biden to enlist Agriculture, Transportation agencies in climate fight Meadows meets with Senate GOP to discuss end-of-year priorities Senate advances energy regulator nominees despite uncertainty of floor vote MORE’s (R-N.D.) amendment. 

They include Democrats that could face tough 2014 reelection fights, such as Max BaucusMax Sieben BaucusBottom line Bottom line Bottom line MORE (Mont.), Mark BegichMark Peter BegichAlaska Senate race sees cash surge in final stretch Alaska group backing independent candidate appears linked to Democrats Sullivan wins Alaska Senate GOP primary MORE (Alaska), Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerBipartisan, bicameral group unveils 8 billion coronavirus proposal The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Mastercard - GOP angst in Georgia; confirmation fight looms Congress ends its year under shadow of COVID-19 MORE (Va.), Kay HaganKay Ruthven Hagan10 under-the-radar races to watch in November The Hill's Campaign Report: Democratic Unity Taskforce unveils party platform recommendations Democrats awash with cash in battle for Senate MORE (N.C.) and Mark PryorMark Lunsford PryorCotton glides to reelection in Arkansas Live updates: Democrats fight to take control of the Senate Lobbying world MORE (Ark.).

However, the tally also included a number of Democrats outside this group, such as Michael BennetMichael Farrand BennetThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Mastercard - GOP angst in Georgia; confirmation fight looms Overnight Health Care: Moderna to apply for emergency use authorization for COVID-19 vaccine candidate | Hospitals brace for COVID-19 surge | US more than doubles highest number of monthly COVID-19 cases Bipartisan Senate group holding coronavirus relief talks amid stalemate MORE (Colo.), who chairs the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, and freshmen Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn HeitkampGrassley suggests moderate Democrats for next Agriculture secretary Major unions back Fudge for Agriculture secretary Five House Democrats who could join Biden Cabinet MORE (N.D.) and Joe DonnellyJoseph (Joe) Simon DonnellyBiden and Schumer face battles with left if Democrats win big Harris walks fine line on Barrett as election nears The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by JobsOhio - Showdown: Trump-Biden debate likely to be nasty MORE (Ind.), to name a few.

Separate votes that provided a referendum of sorts on imposing taxes or fees on industrial carbon emissions also split Democrats, though not as much as the Keystone vote. 

Thirteen Democrats voted against Sen. Sheldon WhitehouseSheldon WhitehouseCriminal justice groups offer support for Durbin amid fight for Judiciary spot The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the UAE Embassy in Washington, DC - COVID-19 fears surround Thanksgiving holiday Feinstein departure from top post sets stage for Judiciary fight MORE’s (D-R.I.) proposal to ensure that revenue from any carbon tax be returned to the U.S. public through deficit reduction, reducing other rates and other “direct” benefits.

Like the Keystone vote, the 13 included a number of Democrats facing reelection next year in red or purple states, such as Pryor, Baucus, Warner, Hagan and Sen. Mary LandrieuMary Loretta LandrieuCassidy wins reelection in Louisiana Bottom line A decade of making a difference: Senate Caucus on Foster Youth MORE (La.).

The Whitehouse amendment went toe-to-toe with Sen. Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Mastercard - Barr splits with Trump on election; pardon controversy Lobbying world Top GOP senator warns government funding deal unlikely this week MORE’s (R-Mo.) anti-carbon tax amendment to ensure that any future carbon tax legislation requires 60 votes to pass.

Blunt’s amendment drew a procedural protest that itself would have required 60 votes to overcome, and only got 53 “yes” votes — a majority, but not enough. He drew eight Democrats to his side.



The votes on the nonbinding budget resolutions were largely symbolic, and didn’t quite tackle the idea of taxing carbon emissions head on or addressing specific proposals on emissions fees. 

They nonetheless illustrated that Republicans and centrist Democrats appear to form a clear majority against fees on emissions from oil and coal producers, power plants and other sources.

But if the votes re-affirmed that carbon taxes or fees don’t have political traction, the budget battle also showed that the Senate is highly unlikely to join the GOP-led House in support of thwarting Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) climate regulations.

Sen. James InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeDespite veto threat, Congress presses ahead on defense bill Hillicon Valley: GOP chairman says defense bill leaves out Section 230 repeal | Senate panel advances FCC nominee | Krebs says threats to election officials 'undermining democracy' Overnight Defense: Defense bill moving forward despite Trump veto threat over tech fight | Government funding bill hits snag | Top general talks Afghanistan, Pentagon budget MORE’s (R-Okla.) amendment to block greenhouse gas rules garnered 47 votes, with three Democrats joining 44 Republicans in support of the failed proposal.

Taken together, the votes suggest there's not currently enough political support in Congress to either make climate policy or take away the Obama administration’s authority.

“Congress has entered a period of legislative limbo on climate, in part because a partisan divide on climate science that exists nowhere else in the world,” said Paul Bledsoe, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund.  

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“There’s also a sneaking sense that many members of Congress on both sides prefer to let the President do the heavy lifting through regulation, rather than undertake more effective but politically complicated action themselves,” added Bledsoe, who worked on climate as an aide in the Clinton White House.

The failure of Inhofe's amendment arrives five weeks after Obama, in his State of the Union address, vowed more aggressive steps on climate using executive power.

EPA is working on rules to set carbon emissions standards for new power plants.



And Obama is under heavy pressure from green groups to take what they say would be a much more significant step: setting emissions rules for existing coal-fired power plants, a major source of greenhouse gases.

On Keystone, Hoeven’s amendment, offered with Baucus, garnered a symbolic filibuster-proof majority in favor of the pipeline, with the tally reaching six votes more than the 56 senators who voted a year ago for legislation to approve the pipeline.

With majorities in both chambers on record in favor of Keystone, supporters quickly sought to use Friday’s bipartisan vote to pressure Obama into approving the project.

A joint press release from the amendment’s bipartisan backers cited the tally, and the easy defeat of Sen. Barbara BoxerBarbara Levy BoxerBiden plays it cool as Trump refuses to concede The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden, Harris launch Trump offensive in first joint appearance Bottom line MORE’s (D-Calif.) counter-amendment, in urging Obama to greenlight TransCanada Corp.'s pipeline.

“Passing this Keystone XL amendment demonstrates with the clarity and firmness of a formal vote that the U.S. Senate supports the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline and finds it in the national interest of the American people,” Hoeven said in a statement after the vote.

“The amendment recognizes that the country will benefit from the pipeline by adding tens of thousands of jobs for Americans, billions of dollars to our economy and new tax revenue for our local, state and federal governments,” he said.

Obama is under heavy pressure from the oil industry and business groups to approve Keystone, and many unions, a key part of Obama’s political base, also back the project.

But environmentalists, another part of Obama’s base, strongly oppose Keystone.

Some green groups sought to downplay the importance of the vote.

“Big Oil may have bought themselves this meaningless vote, but the decision on the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline remains where it’s been all along — with Secretary [of State] Kerry and President Obama,” said League of Conservation Voters President Gene Karpinski in a statement.

The decision remains pending and the State Department is heading the administration review, although most observers expect the final decision will be made in the West Wing.

The White House has dropped hints recently that it could be leaning toward approval. 

President Obama, in recent meetings with House and Senate Republicans, said the environmental impact of the project would not be as significant as green groups claim, according to lawmakers who attended. 

And White House spokesman Josh Earnest, in mid-March, downplayed the climate impact of the project. But officials say that no decisions have been made.

— Sen. Chris CoonsChris Andrew CoonsThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Mastercard - GOP angst in Georgia; confirmation fight looms Overnight Health Care: Moderna to apply for emergency use authorization for COVID-19 vaccine candidate | Hospitals brace for COVID-19 surge | US more than doubles highest number of monthly COVID-19 cases Bipartisan Senate group holding coronavirus relief talks amid stalemate MORE (D-Del.) is up for reelection in 2014. An earlier version of this story contained incorrect information.