The Obama administration’s latest Keystone pipeline delay had barely been announced late last week when red-state Democrats began to howl, calling the move everything from ridiculous to irresponsible and vowing to explore ways to force President Obama’s hand.
The outcry from within the president’s own party underscored the tricky politics for those Democrats, many of whom are facing tough re-election bids, and decisions such as Keystone make it difficult to be tied to Mr. Obama right now.
It also set up a major test: Can those Democrats find a way to pass legislation overruling the administration’s decision, would their leaders allow such a bill to pass, and would Mr. Obama sign it or veto it?
“This decision is irresponsible, unnecessary and unacceptable,” said Sen. Mary L. Landrieu, Louisiana Democrat. “I plan to use my power as chair of the Senate Energy Committee to take decisive action to get this pipeline permit approved.”
On Friday, as Washington was shutting down for the Easter weekend and with Congress in the middle of a two-week vacation, the State Department announced it was putting the Keystone XL pipeline application on hold indefinitely.
An afternoon call alerting congressional staffers to the decision did not go well, according to one aide who said even Democrats appeared caught off guard by the administration’s decision, and were frustrated with how the State Department was handling it.
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The administration’s stated reason for the delay was that officials wanted to see what state courts in Nebraska would do with the pipeline. One state court has ruled Nebraska government officials cut corners in their permitting for the latest path of the pipeline.
But TransCanada, the company trying to build the pipeline, said that judge’s decision has been stayed pending an appeal and the pipeline remains active and viable for now.
That left both Republicans and Democrats saying the administration was playing politics with the decision — and bowing to environmentalists at the expense of tens of thousands of jobs.
Those environmentalists were thrilled with the decision, saying oil derived from shale is particularly bad for global warming and saying the latest delay shows Mr. Obama doesn’t want the pipeline built.
“This is great news!” Tiernan Sittenfeld, a senior vice president at the League of Conservation Voters, said after the Friday announcement. “Today’s announcement by the State Department that it is extending the comment period makes us even more confident that the harmful Keystone XL tar sands pipeline will ultimately be rejected.”
The administration’s move could now force vulnerable Democrats to have to take a stand, at a time when many of them had hoped the administration would approve the pipeline and clear the decks of the thorny issue.
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Michael McKenna, a Republican strategist who tracks energy issues, said it will be tough for Democrats to spin Mr. Obama’s decision in a positive light.
“If you are an environmentalist, you see the ghost of approval after an election in which you have given time and money to re-elect Democrats. That is tantamount to sponsoring treachery directed at yourself and your cause. If you are in favor of the pipeline, you (correctly, I think) understand this to be the latest in a long series of delays which will extend into the next administration,” Mr. McKenna said in an email.
He said a Republican can paint an incumbent Democrat as either opposed to the pipeline, “a tacit co-conspirator” in Mr. Obama’s decision, or “hopelessly impotent” as a lawmaker.
“Not a good place to be in if you are Landrieu and [Sen. Mark Begich of Alaska]. Really bad if you are Mark Udall, who has yet to take a position. He looks like all three, with a generous helping of appearing indecisive on top,” Mr. McKenna said.
But Kirby Goidel, a political scientist at Louisiana State University, said in the case of Ms. Landrieu that it’s not yet clear how it plays.
He said Ms. Landrieu’s forceful statement shows her state that she recognizes the importance of the pipeline as a symbolic issue. But as chairwoman of the Senate Energy Committee, the fact that Mr. Obama went against her could undermine her argument that she has influence on behalf of her state.
“Because the issue potentially cuts both ways, it’s overall effect may depend on the ability of the campaigns to appropriately frame it as an issue that favors their side, particularly given that they are both for the pipeline,” he said. “Is this Sen. Landrieu battling for Louisiana? Or an example of why the Democratic Party is not good for the state?”