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Senate Republicans push bill expediting Keystone XL Pipeline decision

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., center, gestures during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2011, to discuss the Keystone pipeline. AP Photo/Susan Walsh

Senate Republicans are pushing for an expedited decision on the Keystone XL Pipeline permit, proposing on Wednesday a bill that would require the secretary of state to grant a permit for the controversial project within 60 days - unless President Obama were to publicly determine that the pipeline is "not in the national interest" before then.

The Obama administration had been widely expected to approve the project by the end of the year, despite strong objections from political allies in the environmental advocacy world. But following widespread opposition from liberal activists, the White House decided earlier this month to postpone action on the matter for another year in order to explore a possible new route for the pipeline.

Some saw that decision as an opportunity for the president to quell concerns of the pipeline's opponents at least through his bid for re-election.

The GOP-sponsored "North American Security Act," however, aims to force the president's hand on the issue.

Sponsors of the bill argue that the TransCanada Corp. project, which would link the tar sands fields of northern Alberta to oil refineries on the Texas Gulf Coast, would create 20,000 jobs "directly," as well as "support hundreds of thousands of jobs in coming years," according to a summary of the legislation provided by Sen. Richard Lugar's office. The Indiana Republican is one of the bill's co-sponsors.

The senators also say the bill would encourage greater oil production in the U.S., and that "trade with Canada complements an 'all of the above' domestic energy strategy: more domestic oil, more alternative fuels, more auto innovation." Mr. Obama, in putting off a decision, is caving to "environmentalist pressure" and putting "electoral politics ahead of the national interest," the bill's GOP sponsors argue.

"With unemployment at 9 percent and millions of Americans looking for work, it's unacceptable that the President would put off a decision on construction of the Keystone XL pipeline until after next year's election. This project will create thousands of direct jobs and generate billions in investments right away, while making our country less dependent on energy from countries often hostile to the United States," said Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell in a written statement.

"There is absolutely no reason to delay a permit decision on the Keystone pipeline--and the jobs that come with it-- for another year in a blatant attempt to appease the President's political base. This is the definition of shovel-ready jobs," McConnell said.

Opponents of the pipeline warn about the hazardous effects on the environment and, potentially, the health and safety of the American people. A number of lawmakers in Nebraska, including the state's Republican governor, Dave Heineman, have particularly objected to the project because the pipeline would pass directly through a critical aquifer that provides a major portion of the state's drinking water.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., blasted Republicans on Wednesday for trying to "legislate a rubber-stamp approval" of the proposed pipeline - particularly in light of criticism that the initial review of the pipeline proposal was mismanaged by the State Department.

"At a time when the State Department Inspector General is conducting a special inquiry into possible conflicts of interest related to the State Department's handling of this project, it is completely inappropriate to try to short-circuit the thorough environmental review process federal law requires," Sanders said in a statement.

Anthony Swift, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, a New York based environmental advocacy organization, called the GOP bill "troubling" and expressed particular disappointment with Lugar, "who in the past has been a champion for farmers and rural communities."

"TransCanada has spent years trying to railroad the American people with a poorly considered route by bullying landowners with eminent domain, threatening States with lawsuits and providing government officials with misleading information about the feasibility of alternatives," Swift writes in a blog post. "President Obama's decision to consider a new route for the pipeline has given farmers and landowners a more level playing field when dealing with TransCanada. Forcing the President to approve a route, sight unseen, would pull the carpet out from under the feet of these landowners and the State of Nebraska."