Keystone Pipeline Lag Highlights the 2014 Political Stakes
Policy + Politics

Keystone Pipeline Lag Highlights the 2014 Political Stakes

REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

The State Department announced last week that it was extending the Keystone XL pipeline's five-year stay in purgatory — this time, indefinitely.

A departmental review scheduled to end in May has been pushed back while the Nebraska Supreme Court decides a case that could affect the pipeline's path. It seems unlikely that the issue will be resolved before polls are cast in the 2014 midterms, meaning another controversial policy that could affect this year's closest Senate races is in limbo.

The first delays were, obviously, related to the Affordable Care Act. The employer mandate will not go into effect until after the midterms. The canceled plans that became one of the chief woes rankling Obamacare's rollout have been extended in states that allow it. The second period of open enrollment for 2015 will not start until after the November election.

Related:  Democrats' Midterm Challenge - Get Out the Vote

Many of these setbacks were necessitated by the creaky debut of the health-care program, but the timing was most definitely affected by Democrats' worries about their electoral fates.

The conservative 501(c)4 Americans for Prosperity has spent more than $7 million in campaign ads against North Carolina Sen. Kay Hagan (D), many revolving around her support for Obamacare. Americans for Prosperity has also run millions of dollars worth of anti-Obamacare ads aimed at Sens. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) and Mark Pryor (D-Ark.). All three senators pushed to extend open enrollment dates for the individual mandate.

Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu (D) — also facing a tough reelection this year — sponsored a bill that would let people on the notorious canceled health-insurance plans keep them. Her co-sponsors included Pryor, Hagan and Begich.

Many Democrats argued against the delays, especially extending canceled plans, saying it could hinder the long-term success of the law and lead to higher premiums. When these senators know they'll be attacked for whatever happens to the Affordable Care Act between now and November, however, they seem to prefer having opinions on the law's effectiveness — whether positive or negative or wounded by their actions — kindly show themselves out until the holiday season arrives.

The Keystone XL pipeline, also beset by delays, sparks similarly heightened opinions, but has left these senators pushing for action instead of for policy lethargy, at least in public. After Friday's decision from the State Department, Landrieu — who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee — said, "This decision is irresponsible, unnecessary and unacceptable."

Pryor released a statement saying, "When it comes to the Keystone XL pipeline, there's no excuse for another delay." Begich released a statement that said, “I am frankly appalled at the continued foot-dragging by this administration on the Keystone project." To each delay its own special snowflake of a response from the Senate Democrats most intent on taking the public's temperature before making any policy pronouncement this year. And if these senators are watching polling — and are most worried about pushback from conservatives — their respective stances on these issues seem to make sense.

According to a Washington Post-ABC News poll published March 31, 61 percent of conservatives oppose the Affordable Care Act. Despite the attention that Obamacare gets, conservatives are even more certain in their views about the tar sands pipeline. According to a Washington Post-ABC News poll published April 17, 75 percent of conservatives approve the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline.

If the Obama administration approved construction before the midterms, the Landrieus and Hagans of the Senate would have what they construe as a big fat win to show off against the pushback they've been receiving nonstop back home from many on the right, like the ads Americans for Prosperity ran claiming Begich supported a carbon tax and the ads run against Landrieu by the National Republican Senatorial Committee attacking her for not defending the oil and gas industry loudly enough.

However, it would be unwise to underestimate the wings of the Democratic Party who are as against the Keystone XL pipeline as many Republicans are against Obamacare — especially the environmental activists who have as much power to fund ad campaigns as Americans for Prosperity. Tom Steyer, who has said he plans to spend as much as $100 million during the 2014 midterms, said in February that hehad not ruled out running ads against Landrieu for her views on energy and the environment. Some of Steyer's past campaign ads have been as controversial and scathing as any run by Americans for Prosperity. Landrieu has said Steyer's ads would probably help her chances at reelection.

Many other Senate Democrats have begun talking about climate change and pushing efforts to halt it more this year, as evidenced by March's talkathon sleepover at the Capitol. And environmental activists have applauded the latest Keystone XL delay — and many Democrats in not-so-conservative states are likely sighing in relief at the fact that this issue is unlikely to be decided before the 2014 midterms, leaving their relationships with environmental allies and donors intact.

As much as Landrieu, Pryor, Hagan, Begich and company have said how frustrated they are by Keystone XL delays, secretly they are probably sighing in relief, too — at least if the administration is leaning toward rejecting the pipeline.

Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz said on "Meet the Press" yesterday morning regarding Keystone, "I want to make sure the right decision is arrived at and that the president makes that decision carefully and doesn't factor politics into his decision, which I don’t think he is."

Regardless of how politics figures into the president's decision, all these delays have clearly figured into everyone else's electoral calculus, whether it had left them for or against them. And if the Keystone XL decision is pushed back to next year, the debate over whether it should exist is sure to infect the next round of elections, too.

A whole host of Senate Democrats up for election in 2016 are likely to take this round in Blue Dogs' place. In those early presidential primaries, it could become a point of contention, or at least discussion, for both parties. Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, for one, has yet to come down on either side of the pipeline. All these delays might make things easier for 2014, but who knows how they could stir things up down the road.

This article originally appeared in The Washington Post. 

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