The House of Representatives passed a bill expediting the construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline on Friday, thrusting Congress back into the debate over a long-stalled project lauded by proponents as a job creator and reviled by foes as an environmental disaster.
The bill passed by a margin of 252 to 161. This is the ninth time the House has passed such a bill on the pipeline. The Senate has planned a vote on a similar proposal next Tuesday.
The long-simmering debate over the pipeline's construction reached a sudden boil earlier this week when a group of lawmakers, led by Sens. Mary Landrieu, D-Louisiana, and John Hoeven, R-North Dakota, announced an agreement to bring the pipeline approval up for a vote during the Senate's lame duck session.
Landrieu, the powerful chairwoman of the Senate Energy and Commerce Committee, is facing a Senate runoff on December 6 against her GOP foe, Rep. Bill Cassidy. She is considered an underdog in that race, but some Democrats hope her dogged support for Keystone, which is strongly backed by oil and gas interests in her state, could sharpen her final pitch to voters.
It is likely no coincidence that House Republicans named the bill they passed Thursday the "Bill Cassidy Keystone Solution," punting credit to Landrieu's opponent.
Landrieu said Wednesday that she's more concerned about passing the bill than fencing with her opponent over who receives the credit for it.
"I mean to say this as sincerely as I can-if taking my name off this bill helps it to pass, go right ahead," she said. "This is not about credit, it is not about glory, it is not about politics. It is about getting our work done."
The proposal passed Friday would allow TransCanada, the Canadian company behind the project, to "construct, connect, maintain, and operate" the pipeline, which would carry crude oil harvested from Canadian tar sands to oil refineries along the U.S. Gulf Coast.
The project has been delayed for several years pending the completion of an environmental review process by the executive branch. A State Department analysis released in January found the project would pose no "significant" environmental danger, but in April, Mr. Obama's administration indefinitely extended the amount of time agencies have to review the project, citing continued legal wrangling over the pipeline's route through Nebraska.
If it is signed into law, the bill passed by the House would effectively end the debate over the project's environmental impact, recognizing the State Department's analysis as the final verdict on the matter and clearing the way for construction to begin.
With an eye to ongoing litigation in Nebraska, the bill provides some flexibility on the final route, directing TransCanada to respect "any subsequent revision to the pipeline route" enacted by the state of Nebraska.
The bill also includes language, pushed by Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, that protects the property rights of landowners in the pipeline's path.
President Obama has not yet said whether he will sign the bill into law if it reaches his desk, but he hasn't been terribly enthusiastic about the prospect. On Thursday, White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters traveling with the president during his trip to Asia that Mr. Obama takes a "dim view" of congressional attempts to force his hand on Keystone.
And during a press conference on Friday morning in Myanmar with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, the president disputed the argument that Keystone would create thousands of jobs and help bring down energy prices.
"Understand what this project is: It is providing the ability of Canada to pump their oil, send it through our land down to the Gulf, where it will be sold everywhere else," he said. "It doesn't have an impact on U.S. gas prices."
If the president decides to veto the bill, Sen. John Hoeven, R-North Dakota, said Thursday, Congress could seek to attach it to "broader energy legislation" or an appropriations bill "that we think he won't veto."