Keystone Could Prove the Power of Obama’s Veto Pen
Policy + Politics

Keystone Could Prove the Power of Obama’s Veto Pen

President Obama warned recently he wouldn’t hesitate to veto Republican-inspired bills that conflict with his legislative agenda – and he may get his first test sooner than he anticipated.

The House could vote as early as this week on a bill to sidestep the presidential review process and authorize construction of the proposed $8 billion Keystone XL Pipeline between Alberta, Canada and refineries along the U.S. Gulf Coast. The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee scheduled hearings and a markup this week.

Related: Obama Wants Long-Term Infrastructure Plan, Not Keystone


President Obama and the GOP Congress will face off quickly over the $8 billion Keystone Pipeline – but with U.S. domestic oil production booming and gas prices at record lows, a key question is, what’s the rush?

The same legislation passed the House overwhelmingly in November, shortly after the GOP swept the midterms. But it was defeated by one vote in the Senate, where Democrats still held the majority. With the Senate now in Republican hands, the bill will almost surely clear Congress and go to Obama this month.

In the past six years, the White House and the State Department have slow-walked their review of the project. Obama has been caught in the middle of a debate pitting the energy industry and labor groups against high-powered environmental groups.

Industry proponents have boasted the Keystone XL would create “hundreds of thousands of jobs,” while environmentalists say the economic benefit has been overblown. They say construction would threaten ground water and add to climate change issues.

Obama, long a skeptic, has repeatedly sided with environmentalists. In December he said, “There’s been this tendency to really hype this thing as some magic formula to what ails the U.S. economy, and it’s hard to see on paper where exactly they’re getting that information.”

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The project enjoys overwhelming public support and Republicans used the issue to hammer Senate and House Democratic incumbents in the 2014 election. Roughly seven in 10 Americans support building the pipeline, according to a recent Fox News survey. A year ago this month, the State Department issued a final environmental assessment that found the pipeline wouldn’t alter global greenhouse gas emissions.

William Galston, a former domestic policy adviser to President Bill Clinton, said a veto of the Keystone legislation would be consistent with a key tenet of Obama’s administration: “to slow climate change.”

He added, “Having said that, the president has to keep in mind that among the people as a whole, a substantial majority favors building the pipeline.” Galston is a government expert with the Brookings Institution.

“There is a price to pay in vetoing the bill,” he added. “The president would have to think carefully about [how] his first veto of the year would challenge a policy objective that about sixty percent of the American people favor.”

Related: Keystone Pipeline: Job Creator or Environmental Menace? 

If built, the 1,200-mile pipeline – including 875 miles in the U.S. – would carry over 800,000 barrels of Alberta oil sands from Canada to Gulf Coast refineries daily. A State Department report indicated that construction would result in 42,100 direct and indirect jobs, with only 35 permanent jobs when the pipeline is finished. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said this weekend that his party would try to improve the legislation before it reaches the president, but he believes Obama should and will veto the bill.

Amendments might include a requirement that all the steel to build the pipeline come from U.S. mills, that oil from the pipeline should not be exported to other countries, and that the project should encourage more wind and solar energy development.

“Our Republican colleagues say this is a jobs bill but that really is not true at all,” Schumer said on CBS’s Face the Nation. “I think there will be enough Democratic votes to sustain the president’s veto. We need a much different energy policy."

Senate Majority Leader-to-be Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has said approval of the pipeline would top his party’s agenda early on in the 114th Congress. Whether the new GOP majority could muster the 67 votes needed to override the president’s veto is a very different matter. Sen. John Thune (R-SD) told Fox News Sunday, “It’s going to be up to a lot of those Democrats who have expressed support for this in the past as to whether or not now that it really matters.”

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