President Barack Obama may be closer than ever to deciding the fate of the Keystone XL pipeline.
That has more to do with the Nebraska Supreme Court than pressure from congressional Republicans, whose Friday passage in the House of a bill to push forward the long-delayed pipeline fell well short of a veto-proof majority.
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The Nebraska court preempted the House vote by issuing its ruling early Friday that upheld the state’s law that fast-tracked a new route for the $8 billion oil project. The ruling effectively forces the the Obama administration to resume its years-long review that will ultimately determine whether Keystone is in the nation’s interest.
As expected, the House easily passed its bill that would circumvent that process, but only 28 Democrats joined Republicans, putting the ‘yes’ votes in the lower chamber at 266. That’s five more than the last time the House passed a Keystone measure, but dozens of votes short of the support needed from Democrats to guarantee the bill would overcome the veto that the White House has promised.
Undeterred, Republicans vowed to force Obama to uncap his veto pen for only the third time in six years.
“What we’re trying to do is get to the point where the president has to make a decision,” said Rep. Pete Sessions, the Texas Republican who chairs the Rules Committee. “If he says he’s going to [veto] it, let’s give him a chance.”
The White House reiterated its veto threat on Friday after the Nebraska court ruling, saying Congress wouldn’t stand in the way of the review being conducted by the State Department. “We are going to let that process play out,” Obama spokesman Eric Schultz said.
But how long that process will take is not clear, and a 2004 executive order gives Obama no deadline to decide on a border-crossing permit for the $8 billion Alberta-to-Texas pipeline even after the State Department issues its recommendation.
Pipeline supporters’ chances of winning a veto showdown with Obama appeared slim on Friday, even after a court ruling that Keystone backers had hoped might sway new Democratic votes.
Of the 28 House Democrats who voted with all but one Republican on Friday to force Keystone approval, three are new in the yes camp: Reps. Brad Ashford (D-Neb.) and Gwen Graham (D-Fla.), both freshmen, and Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.), who has previously said he supports the pipeline in principle.
Two other Democrats, Reps. Jim Costa (D-Calif.) and Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.), who had voted against Keystone in November after offering support two years ago, moved back into the yes column on Friday.
Still, Republicans need roughly 290 to override an Obama veto, a mark the Democrats vowed they would never reach.
“We’ll definitely be able to uphold a veto,” said New Jersey Rep. Frank Pallone, the Energy and Commerce Committee’s top Democrat. “I’m confident.”
Arizona Rep. Raul Grijalva, the Natural Resources Committee’s top Democrat, predicted that a strong minority front to uphold a Keystone veto would set the tone for the entire 114th Congress.
“This is going to play out in a variety of other issues as we go along,” be it on education, highway trust fund or otherwise, Grijalva said in an interview. “While they have historic numbers, if the president moves to veto, we’re still in position to keep the worst from happening. … It’s not just XL now, it’s about party unity now as well.”
Five of the 31 House Democrats who voted to approve the pipeline in November have since left Congress. In the Senate, where the pro-Keystone bill is set to clear its first procedural hurdle Monday ahead of what likely to be a contentious open amendment debate, Republicans appear to be four votes short of the 67 needed to override a veto.
“I don’t think it’s going to happen,” Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid told Nevada radio station KNPR on Friday, adding he is “confident the president will veto it and, good, I hope he does.”
Republicans counter that all they need is time for the pro-Keystone arguments on economic and energy-security benefits to peel more Democrats away from Obama.
“Labor Dems are starting to turn the corner here,” one House GOP leadership aide said by email, “and I suspect the pressure to support this bipartisan jobs project back home will continue to grow.”
Unions that have long urged approval of Keystone seized on the Nebraska decision in urging Democrats to push the pipeline forward.
“The greenlight for the Nebraska route should certainly cause some Democrats to pause and realize the roadblocks they’ve been hiding behind are falling away,” Laborers International Union of North America General President Terry O’Sullivan said in a statement. “There’s really no excuse for a no vote.”
For Keystone sponsor TransCanada, whose pipeline proposal sparked the political tempest over climate change, jobs and the tradeoffs between economic growth and environmental protection, the Nebraska court case represented a major victory.
The company’s CEO, Russ Girling, told reporters Friday that the State Department’s process would resume about halfway through the 90-day window it has to render a “national interest” ruling on Keystone, meaning that final approval could come within “the next couple of months.”
But State spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters today that she could not offer specifics on when the Keystone review would wind down, saying only she did not expect the process to last beyond the end of Obama’s term in 2016.
As for Congress’ effort to push a veto showdown over Keystone with Obama, Girling was more circumspect.
“We’ve tried to not to get involved in the political process,” the TransCanada CEO said, “but what we’ve said as well is that we welcome all opportunities to put this to a positive conclusion.”
Darren Goode and Andrew Restuccia contributed to this report.