Obama vetoes GOP-backed bill approving Keystone oil pipeline

Students protesting against the proposed Keystone XL pipeline chant slogans in front of the White House in Washington, D.C., on March 2, 2014.

NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images

Last Updated Feb 24, 2015 3:54 PM EST

WASHINGTON -- President Obama has vetoed a Republican-backed bill on Tuesday that would have approved construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline, putting a freeze on a top GOP priority - at least for now.

"Through this bill, the United States Congress attempts to circumvent longstanding and proven processes for determining whether or not building and operating a cross-border pipeline serves the national interest. The Presidential power to veto legislation is one I take seriously. But I also take seriously my responsibility to the American people. And because this act of Congress conflicts with established executive branch procedures and cuts short thorough consideration of issues that could bear on our national interest -- including our security, safety, and environment -- it has earned my veto," Mr. Obama said in a statement Tuesday.

The contentious legislation arrived at the White House Tuesday morning from Capitol Hill, where Republicans pushed the bill quickly through both chambers in their first burst of activity since taking full control of Congress. White House spokesman Josh Earnest said earlier in the day that Mr. Obama would veto it in private "without any drama or fanfare or delay."

The president's veto notwithstanding, the White House said there was no "final disposition" on whether a permit will be issued for the pipeline, which has become a major flashpoint in the national debate over climate change. Rather, Mr. Obama is rebuffing a congressional attempt to circumvent the executive branch's "longstanding process for evaluating whether projects like this are in the best interests of the country," Earnest said.

The move sends the politically charged issue back to Congress, where Republicans have yet to show they can muster the two-thirds majority in both chambers needed to override Obama's veto. Sen. John Hoeven, R-North Dakota, the bill's chief GOP sponsor, said Republicans are about four votes short in the Senate and need about 11 more in the House. Still, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, promised to hold a vote to override the veto.

Although the Keystone bill is the first that Obama has vetoed since Republicans won full control of Congress in November, it was not likely to be the last. GOP lawmakers are lining up legislation rolling back Mr. Obama's actions on health care, immigration and financial regulation that Obama has promised to similarly reject.

First proposed more than six years ago, the Keystone XL pipeline project has sat in limbo ever since, awaiting a permit required by the federal government because it would cross an international boundary. The pipeline would connect Canada's tar sands with refineries on the Texas Gulf Coast that specialize in processing heavy crude oil.

Republicans and the energy industry say the $8 billion project would create jobs, spur growth and increase America's independence from Mideast energy sources. Democrats and environmental groups have sought to make the pipeline a poster child for the type of dirty energy sources they say is exacerbating global warming.

For his part, Mr. Obama says his administration is still weighing the pipeline's merits, but has repeatedly threatened to veto any attempts by lawmakers to make the decision for him.

The GOP-controlled House passed the bill earlier in February on a 270-152 vote, following weeks of debate and tweaks in the Senate to insert language stating that climate change is real and not a hoax. Republican leaders in Congress delayed sending the bill to the White House until they returned from a weeklong recess, ensuring they would be on hand to denounce the president when he vetoed the bill.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said the looming veto showed how the White House refuses to listen and find common ground with Republicans.

"It's the same kind of top-down, tone-deaf leadership we've come to expect and we were elected to stop," the GOP leaders wrote in an op-ed article Tuesday in USA Today.

He called the veto a "national embarrassment" in a statement, saying Russia and China were moving ahead of the U.S. on a "no-brainer of a project."

"The president is just too close to environmental extremists to stand up for America's workers. He's too invested in left-fringe politics to do what presidents are called on to do, and that's put the national interest first," Boehner said.

Republican leaders were mulling a number of potential next steps. In addition to trying to peel off enough Democrats to override Obama's veto - an unlikely proposition - Republicans were considering inserting Keystone into other critical legislation dealing with energy, spending or infrastructure in hopes that Obama would be less likely to veto those priorities, said Hoeven.

The president last wielded his veto power in October 2010, nixing a relatively mundane bill dealing with recognition of documents notarized out of state. With the Keystone bill, Obama's veto count stands at just three - far fewer than most of his predecessors. Yet his veto threats have been piling up rapidly since Republicans took control of Congress, numbering more than a dozen so far this year.

The president has said he won't approve Keystone if it's found to significantly increase U.S. emissions of carbon dioxide, the chief greenhouse gas blamed for global warming. A State Department analysis found that the tar sands would be developed one way or another, meaning construction of the pipeline wouldn't necessarily affect emissions. The Environmental Protection Agency earlier this month called for that analysis has to be revisited, arguing that a drop in oil prices may have altered the equation.