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Keystone looms as Senate takes up energy bill

  • Article by: Paul Kane
  • Washington Post
  • May 4, 2014 - 9:10 PM

– The impassioned debate over the Keystone XL pipeline could reach a tipping point this week on Capitol Hill as Congress gets what is likely to be its last chance to consider the issue until after the November midterm elections. The outcome could complicate matters for the Obama administration, which is still reviewing whether to allow permits for sections of the pipeline.

The Senate is set to begin debate on a modest energy bill that has enough bipartisan support to pass on its own merits, but supporters of the pipeline, intended to transport oil from western Canada to the U.S. Gulf Coast, are trying to leverage the bill to force votes on Keystone. The issue has prompted a multimillion-dollar lobbying campaign on both sides; hardly a half-hour goes by on cable news outlets without one side or the other pushing its position on the matter.

Bill tied to re-elections

A handful of Democrats facing tough re-elections support the pipeline. That has led Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to engage in sensitive negotiations over the parliamentary process for how amendments to the bill — drafted by Sens. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., and Rob Portman, R-Ohio — will be considered.

GOP leaders have pushed to get an amendment to the bill that would allow them to simply mandate the construction of the pipeline, overriding the ongoing review by the State Department as it considers how to handle 2.5 million public comments on the proposal and an ongoing lawsuit in Nebraska trying to alter the route. That review, with a further delay announced two weeks ago, seems certain to last past November and ­possibly into next year.

Reid offered Republicans a separate vote on a bill that would be a clean Keystone vote, nothing else, requiring 60 votes to overcome the filibuster of liberal senators opposed to the proposal. “The key then is getting 60 votes,” Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., the cosponsor with Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., of the Keystone amendment, told reporters Thursday. Landrieu is chairman of the Senate Energy Committee and one of the most endangered incumbents seeking ­re-election this fall.

Energy measure at risk

By the end of the week, Hoeven said he had not secured at least 60 votes due to the confusion over whether it would be part of the Shaheen-Portman bill or a free-standing vote. Some Democrats who have previously supported the bill have been hesitant to support a Keystone amendment out of fear that President Obama would veto the entire package because of the controversial measure, torpedoing the underlying energy legislation.

The most recent Senate vote in support of the pipeline produced a filibuster-proof majority of 62 votes, but it was a nonbinding vote. If that same coalition held together and approved the proposal, Hoeven said, House Republicans could quickly approve the Keystone XL project and send it to Obama, daring him to veto a plan supported by almost a third of Senate Democrats and incumbents critical to holding the majority in November.

© 2014 Star Tribune