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Push for Keystone vote puts Senate Democrats in a bind in election year

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid got stuck this week in the political tangle of the Keystone XL pipeline, caught between the party's environmentalist base that fiercely opposes it and vulnerable Senate Democrats from red states who want to vote to approve the long-stalled project.

With an energy bill on the floor, Republicans said the time was ripe to force a vote on their priorities including a proposal to approve the Keystone pipeline. Mr. Reid balked, and the bill is now in limbo amid bickering over who can offer amendments and what they can say.

That once again left red-state Democrats squirming and looking for ways to vote on the project and put distance between themselves and President Obama.

The setback was particularly painful for Sen. Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana, one of the Senate's most endangered Democrats and a lead sponsor of the bill. It called into question Ms. Landrieu's boast that her powerful position as chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources makes her indispensable to Louisiana voters.

Republicans have countered that in all her time on the committee, Ms. Landrieu has failed to advance the Keystone XL project, which would allow oil from western Canada to be piped to refineries and ports on the U.S. Gulf Coast. Because the pipeline crosses an international border, it requires federal approval.

Ms. Landrieu blamed the setback Tuesday on parliamentary conflicts.

"They can't agree on amendments," she told The Washington Times.

Mr. Reid said he had promised Keystone supporters a stand-alone vote in the future if they let him push through the energy efficiency bill now, without a host of other changes.

He said Republicans refused, which leaves both sides hurtling toward a filibuster vote this week that likely will kill the modest energy efficiency bill.

On the Senate floor, Mr. Reid offered a folksy analogy about the difficulty cutting deals with his Republican colleagues.

"Oft times, working with my Republican Senate colleagues reminds me of chasing one of these little pigs in a greased pig contest," he said. "Regardless of all of our efforts, anytime we get close to making promise, it seems as though we watch it slip out of our hands and the Republicans scamper away."

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said the Democratic majority was denying Americans a serious debate about energy policy.

"We can't move forward if the Democrats who run the Senate keep trying to protect the president at the expense of serving their constituents," he said.

Refusing a vote on the amendment to approve the project spared Mr. Obama, who has repeatedly delayed it since he took office, from a potentially embarrassing bipartisan vote that could have approved the pipeline over his objections.

Environmentalists oppose the project because they fear catastrophic spills from the more than 800,000 barrels of oil per day that would course through the cross-country pipeline, as well as emissions of greenhouse gases that they blame for climate change.

They have warned Mr. Obama of political peril in November's elections if he approves the project.

The Sierra Club sent a frantic email Tuesday evening asking supporters to call their senators and rally in opposition to the pipeline.

"It would ensure more disastrous oil spills, threaten sources of drinking water for millions, disrupt wildlife, and increase rates of cancer and other health problems in Canada and in refinery communities here in the United States," the club said.

Supporters of the pipeline say the Obama administration's State Department has concluded that the pipeline won't increase greenhouse gas emissions because, among other reasons, Canada has said it will mine and sell the oil no matter what, possibly to U.S. customers shipped through railroad cars.

Supporters also say the Keystone XL pipeline would create thousands of construction jobs and provide energy from a stable and friendly neighbor rather than vulnerable and sometimes hostile regimes in the Middle East and Venezuela.

Red-state Democrats have been among the most vocal in demanding that Mr. Obama speed up approval.

Ms. Landrieu and Sen. John Hoeven, North Dakota Republican, are lead sponsors of a stand-alone Keystone approval bill.

It has 11 Democratic co-sponsors, including five others facing election fights besides Ms. Landrieu: Mark L. Pryor of Arkansas, Kay R. Hagan of North Carolina, Mark Begich of Alaska, Mark R. Warner of Virginia, and John E. Walsh of Montana.

"It's a hell of a pickle for Harry," said Michael McKenna, a Republican energy policy strategist. "There's no good way to work it. The problem is that there are some Democrats who really need a vote on Keystone and other Democrats who really, really, really want to avoid it."

He said there was no obvious way for Mr. Reid to "square the circle," and it likely would doom the entire energy bill.

"He can't help some without hurting others," Mr. McKenna said.

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