Mutiny on the Hill: Congress Aces Out Obama over Keystone Pipeline
Policy + Politics

Mutiny on the Hill: Congress Aces Out Obama over Keystone Pipeline

REUTERS/TransCanada Corporation/Handout

For years, President Obama has flexed his executive powers to try to circumvent a recalcitrant Congress on a broad range of environmental, economic and regulatory issues. 

Last January, Obama vowed during his State of the Union address to use the power of his pen to chip away at his agenda, making clear he would sidestep Congress “wherever and whenever” he can. He then announced he would approve an increase in the minimum wage for new federal contract workers, from $7.25 an hour to $10.10—a 40 percent increase.

Related: Keystone Pipeline: Job Creator or Environmental Menace?  

Now it looks as if lawmakers from both parties are getting ready to turn the tables as they press for approval of a controversial pipeline project.  

Frustrated that the administration appears to be slow walking a decision on whether to approve the Keystone XL Pipeline past the November midterm election, a bipartisan coalition of senators is rallying around a bill that would effectively brush aside the president and authorize   the project.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) said last Thursday that he was prepared to bring a measure approving the pipeline to the Senate floor despite the administration’s continued reluctance to determine the project’s fate.

Reid is no fan of the pipeline, but he is feeling heat from his own members to bring the issue up for a vote – possibly this week – provided Republicans agree to support a separate energy efficiency bill drafted by Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) and Rob Portman (R-OH).

Related: Election-Year Shift from Reid on Keystone Pipeline Vote 

It is far from clear what form the Keystone pipeline legislation will finally take – and whether it will be a freestanding bill or part of the more complex energy-efficiency legislation. However, the chief sponsors of the measure, Louisiana Democrat Mary Landrieu and North Dakota Republican John Hoeven, are aggressively lining up support for the effort.

The Landrieu-Hoeven bill would bypass Obama and authorize immediate construction of the proposed 875-mile pipeline between Alberta, Canada and U.S. refineries along the Gulf Coast. If it manages to clear the Senate, the Republican controlled House likely would move swiftly to embrace the bill – setting up a showdown with the White House.  

Six of the 11 Democrats supporting the bill – including Landrieu – are up for reelection, and several face tough battles in conservative and oil-producing states. Landrieu has come under fire from her Republican challengers over her failure to get the Keystone project moving.

“The construction of the Keystone pipeline is very important,” Landrieu, the new chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said late last week. “It is time to stop studying and start building.”

Related: Keystone Pipeline Lag Highlights the 2014 Political Stakes

Jim Manley, a former spokesperson for Reid, said yesterday, “In light of the fact that the administration has once again punted on this, it looks to me that Reid is a little bit more serious now about trying to arrange a vote.”

Until now, the pipeline controversy has been in the hands of the White House and the State Department, which has been responsible for determining whether the proposed transnational project passed environmental muster. An executive order granted the State Department the authority to review cross-border energy projects.

In late January, the State Department issued a much-anticipated final environmental assessment – one that boosted the case for industry proponents. The report found that the proposed pipeline would not alter global greenhouse gas emissions.

However, the administration subsequently announced on April 18 – Good Friday – that it was extending the government comment period on the pipeline project until well after the Nov. 4 election. The administration said it needs the additional time to handle more than 2.5 million public comments on the project and to resolve an ongoing lawsuit in Nebraska seeking to alter the pipeline’s route.

The announcement angered Republicans and worried Democrats who feared the decision would work against them in an election that will determine whether they will retain control of the Senate.

Related: State Dept. Study Boosts Keystone Pipeline Prospects   

“It’s obvious the president is trying to kick the can past the elections,” Ryan Bernstein, Hoeven’s chief of staff, told The Fiscal Times on Monday.  “With the announcement on Good Friday that the administration has decided to indefinitely delay a decision on the pipeline, we feel that there is no other option at this point than having Congress step in and make a decision for the president, who has been unable and unwilling to do so thus far.”

The Senate vote will almost certainly reignite a debate over whether Congress has the right to intervene in this manner – and it would be difficult for Congress to override a veto if it came to that.

However, a Congressional Research Service report issued in January 2012 – when Congress was debating another bill to override the president’s authority over the pipeline project – said Congress does have the legal authority to approve the pipeline under the commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution. 

“CRS said basically that Congress has the authority to do it as the president has been doing it absent any action of the Congress,” said Bernstein. “So basically it’s within the Congress’s purview and the president has only done it absent any action by Congress.”

The nearly six-year long controversy over the pipeline has pitted powerful forces against one another. The petroleum industry, the AFL-CIO and other labor groups and many Republican and Democratic lawmakers who favor the $54 billion TransCanada project insist it would generate tens of thousands of well-paying jobs while pumping billions of dollars into a still struggling U.S. economy. American Petroleum Institute officials say approval of the full pipeline could “support 42,000 jobs” and “put $2 billion in workers’ pockets during its construction.”

Related: State Dept. Study Boosts Keystone Pipeline Prospects   

Environmental groups that have battled the project say the economic benefit has been vastly overblown and that once the pipeline is built, there would be fewer than 50 permanent jobs connected with the pipeline in the U.S. and Canada.

The Natural Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club and other environmental groups have vigorously opposed the pipeline – warning of the dangers of oil spills, serious damage to wildlife and ground water, and worsening climate change. One estimate claims 830,000 barrel a day would add 1.2 billion metric tons of carbon pollution to the atmosphere over its 50-year estimated lifespan.

Landrieu and Hoeven must garner at least 60 votes to overcome a filibuster and pass legislation in the Senate. They have the support of all 45 Senate Republicans and 11 Democrats – which puts them just four votes shy of the 60-vote super majority.

The Wall Street Journal reported last week that supporters were eying Colorado’s two Democratic senators, Michael Bennet and Mark Udall -- who is facing a tough reelection challenge from Republican Rep. Corry Gardner. And they believe they have enlisted backing from Sen. Robert P. Casey (D-PA).

Others being wooed include independent Sen. Angus King of Maine and Democratic Sens. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Thomas Carper of Delaware and Tim Johnson of South Dakota, according to a Senate aide.

“As far as I’m concerned the only winners out of the president’s decision to punt the ball again on Keystone are those Senate Democrats from red states,” said Manley. “They get a chance to go on the record with their support while at the same time they get yet another chance to put a little distance between them and the president.”

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