Push for Keystone Vote Puts At-Risk Dems, WH at Odds

Push for Keystone Vote Puts At-Risk Dems, WH at Odds
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Congressional Democrats have found their election-year groove in base-favored issues like the minimum wage, pay equity and college affordability, which are expected to unite the party and mobilize voters in a harsh midterm climate.

But approval of the Keystone pipeline is one issue that could be as pesky as the others are helpful: It pits a majority of Democrats against a group of party colleagues whose re-election results could determine who controls the Senate next year.

That dynamic has Democratic leaders looking for a way forward given sharply competing interests. They are caught between a White House that is being pressured by environmentalists and wants Congress to stay out of the pipeline approval process, and their vulnerable fellow members whose campaigns rely in part on countering administration positions that affect their states.

Senate leaders are leaning toward the latter, and are working on a deal to bring Keystone approval legislation up for a vote as early as next week.

Majority Leader Harry Reid told reporters Thursday that there was a “75-80 percent chance” leaders would work something out on the pipeline. He and other party leaders have been in communication with the White House about these next steps, but the move signals that their concerns outweigh the president’s.

Given a recent administration delay on approving the line that would transport crude oil from Canada to refineries on the Gulf Coast, Energy Committee Chairwoman Mary Landrieu of Louisiana introduced legislation Thursday with Republican colleague John Hoeven of North Dakota that would greenlight the project. The pair picked up support from all Senate Republicans and 10 Democrats, all of whom represent conservative states and half of whom, like Landrieu, face difficulty winning another term.

Last month, the State Department pushed back final approval on the project, citing litigation in the Nebraska Supreme Court over the line’s route. The Landrieu-Hoeven measure would approve the pipeline from Canada to Montana, giving the courts time to work out the routing issue.

Landrieu has used her chairmanship of the Energy panel to appeal to constituents, but Republicans have used the administration’s approval delays to cast doubt on her clout. The three-term senator has pushed for a binding vote that could actually carry some weight, unlike a previous resolution passed by the Senate last March simply expressing support for the pipeline.

“The review process has been thorough. The five studies that have been conducted, as required by law, are complete. It is time to stop studying and start building. We cannot lose this opportunity to create tens of thousands of jobs and $20 billion in economic activity,” Landrieu said in a statement announcing the bill.

Nearly a dozen Democrats from red states signed on as co-sponsors: Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Jon Tester of Montana, Mark Warner of Virginia, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Mark Begich of Alaska, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, and John Walsh of Montana.

That would leave the bill just four votes shy of clearing the requisite 60-vote threshold, and proponents have been courting lawmakers who supported the March 2013 resolution.

But the measure doesn’t appear likely to garner a two-thirds, veto-proof majority. Landrieu later told reporters that there are on-going negotiations with the White House, but she has indicated she will push the bill regardless of the administration’s stance.

“Our position hasn’t changed, which is that this has to be run by the book, which is why the State Department is running the process on Keystone, as has long been the case, again, through administrations of both parties,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said Wednesday. “And what we’ve seen in the past when Congress has passed legislation, it has actually slowed the process down. So we believe that this has to be run by the book, outside of politics, and that’s the way it’s being run.”

The issue has been heating up on Capitol Hill this week as lawmakers are poised to take up a bipartisan energy bill, sponsored by Democrat Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire and Rob Portman of Ohio. Members have been debating whether to attach a Keystone measure as an amendment to that legislation, which has stalled previously in the Senate, or to have a separate pipeline bill.

A stand-alone measure appears to be the more likely scenario, as an amendment could bog down the energy bill that lawmakers in both parties want to pass. Shaheen, for example, does not support the Keystone bill because she doesn’t think Congress should circumvent the administration’s approval process.

Louisiana Republican Sen. David Vitter had threatened to block the energy legislation unless he got an amendment that would cut health care subsidies to members of Congress and their staffs -- an effort that derailed the bill last year. Vitter said Thursday he would back away from that request if Reid allowed a Keystone vote.

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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