Political battle over Keystone pipeline takes center stage

Senator Mary Landrieu , D-La., speaks during a a press conference on the Keystone XL pipeline in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on February 4, 2014 in Washington, DC.  MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

The Keystone XL pipeline will be at the center of a Senate debate this week, splitting the Democrats who control the chamber and possibly putting an energy efficiency bill up for a vote at risk.

The bill, sponsored by Sens. Mary Landrieu, D-La., and John Hoeven, R-N.D., would aim to bypass the administration's long review process and authorize an immediate start to construction. At this point, the bill's sponsors don't have the support they would need to overcome a filibuster from Democratic opponents, but it could be good politics either way for the handful of Democratic senators from Republican-leaning states who are facing tough re-election campaigns this year.

Landrieu is one such Democrat, and she has pushed the president to approve the pipeline. When the administration moved to delay a review of the pipeline for an indefinite amount of time - meaning almost certainly after the November elections - Landrieu issued a statement calling the decision, "irresponsible, unnecessary and unacceptable" and pledged to use her power as the chair of the Senate Energy Committee to bring quick action.

Landrieu and Hoeven say they have 57 supporters, three shy of the 60 they would need to ensure passage of the bill. Of the 11 Democratic co-sponsors, five -- Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Mark Begich of Alaska, Mark Warner of Virginia, and John Walsh of Montana - are also up for re-election. Pryor, Hagan and Begich are considered to be in especially tight races because their states lean so Republican.

There are more Democrats that backed a March 2013 non-binding resolution in support of the pipeline. Three of those senators, Chris Coons of Delaware, Tim Johnson of South Dakota and Bill Nelson of Florida, aren't planning to support the Landrieu-Hoeven bill. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., is. But even if the two Democrats who haven't announced their positions (Michael Bennet of Colorado andTom Carper of Delaware) were to vote in favor, that would still leave the bill's supporters one vote shy of guaranteed passage.

Johnson cited a recent court decision to overturn a Nebraska law allowing the pipeline as the reason he won't vote in favor of Landrieu and Hoeven's bill. The ruling he said, "has created significant uncertainty at the state and federal level. As with any project of this magnitude, it is important that environmental, economic, and public safety concerns be properly addressed and that a decision be based on the best available information and consideration of public comment."

And a vote matters for both sides. Troubled Democrats would be able to go home to their constituents and point to the vote as evidence of their commitment to the pipeline. Same for the bill's opponents and their opposition. And President Obama will be off the hook for making a decision about whether to veto the bill, which would most likely pass the GOP-controlled House.

Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., the number three Democrat in the Senate, said on MSNBC Monday that the vote would be "real close."

"We're willing to see a vote on Keystone," he said. "Each side thinks they're going to win."

The project would transport oil from Canada's oil sands to refineries on the Gulf Coast, and could mean several thousand jobs. But opponents worry about the carbon dioxide emissions that would result from transporting and refining the hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil that would flow through the pipeline each day.

The mechanics of the vote are still up in the air. Supporters of the bill want it voted on as an amendment to an energy efficiency measure sponsored by Sens. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., and Rob Portman, R-Ohio, that is set to come up for a vote on Tuesday. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has yet to announce how amendments will be handled, but a standalone vote on the Keystone bill would avoid the risk of it becoming part of the bipartisan energy efficiency bill, which could prompt a veto from the president.

CBS News' John Nolen contributed to this story.

  • Rebecca Kaplan

    Rebecca Kaplan is a political reporter for CBSNews.com.

Comments