WASHINGTON — The Obama administration’s latest Keystone XL delay is having an unintended consequence: a revived effort in Congress to circumvent the White House by forcing the project’s approval.
While a plurality of senators are on record supporting Keystone, no bill relating to the pipeline other than a nonbinding resolution has passed in the chamber. That’s because some Democrats haven’t wanted to usurp President Obama’s authority to make the final call.
“We’ll have to start counting noses again,” first-term Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., said after the State Department said last week it was again delaying a recommendation on the project.
Forcing approval remains a heavy lift: Backers acknowledge that they are a few votes short of the 60 needed to advance a bill in the 100-member Senate. It would require two-thirds of the Senate, or 67 members, to override an almost certain presidential veto. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., in charge of the agenda and a pipeline foe, has declined to bring up legislation that would bypass Obama on Keystone.
Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said supporters are determined to try. His office has contacted Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee who backs the project, to plot a strategy once members return next week from a two-week break.
“There is going to be a strong push,” to advance a bill, Hoeven said.
The Republican-controlled House has already passed similar measures by broad majorities.
The State Department is leading an interagency review of TransCanada’s proposal to build a $5.4 billion pipeline from Hardisty, Alberta, in Canada to Steele City, Neb. From there it would connect to an existing network of pipelines that extends to refineries on the Gulf Coast.
The department had asked other agencies to file comments on the plan by early May. On April 18, it announced it would extend that deadline until a legal challenge to the route through Nebraska is settled by the state Supreme Court. Opponents of the project say the delay probably pushes a final decision into early next year — well after midterm elections in November that will determine control of Congress.
TransCanada proposed Keystone in September 2008. Obama rejected the route after Nebraska officials said it posed a risk to an important aquifer and network of wetlands. A new route was then approved by Republican Gov. Dave Heineman of Nebraska though landowners challenged a law that gave him that authority. A landowner victory in the case was appealed to the Nebraska Supreme Court, which may hear the case this fall.
The week before the State Department announced the delay, citing the Nebraska case, 11 Senate Democrats signed a letter to Obama requesting he approve Keystone before May 31. If they all joined the 45 Republicans in the Senate, supporters would still be four votes short of 60.
A non-binding resolution backing the pipeline passed the Senate with 62 votes in March 2013. A year earlier, an amendment pushed by Hoeven to approve the project over the president’s opposition got just 56 votes and failed.