House Passes Keystone Bill For the Seventh Time, With the Same Result Likely

Amy Harder
National Journal

For the seventh time in two years, the House passed legislation on Wednesday approving the Keystone XL pipeline, a 1,700-mile project to carry heavy oil from Canadian tar sands to refineries on the Gulf Coast. And for the seventh straight time, the bill—approved on a 241-175 vote—is likely to have little substantive effect.

The Republican-controlled House has been trying to force President Obama to approve a permit for the pipeline since he put the project on hold a year before the 2012 election, saying it needed further review. That pleased his environmental supporters, who see the project as a serious blow to efforts to deal with climate change.

Obama even denied a permit for the project requested by Canadian builder TransCanada after Republicans pushed through a bill giving him just two months to decide on it. TransCanada has since submitted a new permit application, but despite the seven House votes to approve the project, its status is exactly where it was two years ago: pending a decision from the State Department, which has jurisdiction because the pipeline crosses the U.S.-Canadian border.

Even the project’s most ardent supporters in the Senate see little hope of getting Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to move the bill to the floor and put the Senate in a position to force the president’s hand.

“I think we need to keep pressure on the administration,” said Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee ranking member Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska. “Whether it’s through what the House is doing with their vote, what we’re doing on the Senate side, sending letters, teeing things up, trying to insert amendments. It’s been difficult because the leadership in the Senate has pushed back on us.”

One of the few outspoken Democrats for the project in the Senate is confident of floor action, but it may be a case of freshman naïvete. “I think we’re all waiting and all very hopeful that what we’re going to see is a presidential approval,” said Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D. “If we don’t see it, I think you can expect there will be some unilateral action taken by the Senate.”

But what exactly that unilateral action would be is an open question. Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., have introduced legislation that would automatically approve the pipeline. While Reid won’t bring up the bill on his own accord, proponents could seek to force a vote on the measure by attaching it to another bill. The options are limited, however.

Hoeven and Heitkamp, a cosponsor, are unlikely to try to add the bill as an amendment to the farm bill the Senate is now considering, given that they both want to see that measure pass. Next up after the Memorial Day recess is the immigration bill, which is already controversial enough without being entangled with the Keystone pipeline.

The looming fight over the debt-ceiling limit is an option Republicans could pursue if they deem it a high enough priority. But Reid would likely do all he could to keep Keystone and other controversial issues out of the mix.

“I have no doubt he [Reid] will take the necessary steps to prevent something like Keystone from being attached,” said Chris Miller, who until January was the Democratic leader’s top aide on energy and climate issues.

If the Senate does vote on the Hoeven-Baucus bill, it’s unlikely to get the necessary 60 votes to overcome a filibuster. Republicans note that a 62-37 vote for a resolution on the pipeline in March had support from 17 Democrats, but some of them say it was merely a resolution stating the project would have a positive impact on the budget.