By Thomas Ferraro
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Democratic U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu accused Republicans on Wednesday of being more interested in exploiting the long-delayed Keystone XL oil pipeline project as an election issue than in voting to build it.
In a speech on the Senate floor, Landrieu, who represents the oil-producing state of Louisiana where public support for Keystone runs high, urged Republican leaders to reverse themselves and accept a deal offered by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
Reid, a Nevada Democrat, has said that if Republicans allow passage of a bipartisan energy bill, he would permit a separate vote on Keystone, a project that polls show most Americans support.
Environmentalists oppose Keystone - which would bring more than 800,000 barrels a day from Canada's oil sands to refineries in Texas - saying it could lead to spills and emissions linked to climate change. Backers say it would increase energy independence and create thousands of jobs.
Republicans have joined Landrieu and 10 other Democrats in seeking a vote on Keystone. But Republicans now say they also want votes on a number of amendments to the energy bill, including one to prevent the Obama administration from imposing new regulations on coal-fired power plants.
With Reid refusing to permit amendments on the energy bill, Republicans are expected to stop the bill with a procedural roadblock on Monday. That would likely kill the legislation and see the offer for a Keystone vote withdrawn as well.
It is unclear if the Senate, where Democrats hold a 55-45 majority, could muster the 60 votes needed to pass a bill to take the authority to approve Keystone away from President Barack Obama and give it to Congress. Even if it did, Obama could veto the measure.
But a Senate vote would show bipartisan support for Keystone and build pressure on Obama to end years of delays and studies and approve the project.
Landrieu, who faces a tough re-election battle this November, said: "The time for studying is over. The time for building is now." She said the way to do that was to press Obama with a Keystone vote.
"My question to my Republican friends is: 'Do you want to build the Keystone pipeline or do you want an issue to talk about'" heading into the November election. "I think they want an issue to talk about," she said.
Republican leaders say it is the first time in years a major energy bill has been before the Senate and that they should be able to offer amendments.
Landrieu read aloud pro-Keystone comments by a number of Republicans who she said now seemed more intent on demanding votes on energy amendments that have no chance of becoming law.
"You've heard a lot about amendments, amendments, amendments," Landrieu said, adding the more important question was: "Are we going to vote to build the Keystone pipeline?"
(Reporting by Thomas Ferraro; Editing by Peter Cooney and Ken Wills)