- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 12, 2014

With just a few weeks left in power, Senate Democrats want to clear the decks of spending bills and force votes on dozens of President Obama’s judicial nominations, but a brewing fight over the Keystone XL oil pipeline already has split Democrats and proved a major distraction.

Also on tap for the packed lame-duck session are Mr. Obama’s request for $5.6 billion to send arms and U.S. troops to aid the fight against Islamic State terrorists in Iraq and Syria, money to combat the spread of Ebola in the U.S. and West Africa, and perhaps the confirmation of New York federal prosecutor Loretta Lynch to be attorney general.

Late Wednesday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, added another hot potato. He scheduled unexpected votes this week and next on a bill to cancel the National Security Agency’s phone snooping program, which would be an opportunity for bipartisan cooperation on reining in the surveillance program.

Although most of the congressional elections concluded last week, campaign politics roiled the chamber. Sen. Mary L. Landrieu, a Louisiana Democrat who is fighting an uphill battle in a Dec. 6 runoff, demanded a vote on the long-stalled Keystone XL pipeline that would pump oil from Canada into the U.S.

Mr. Reid kept the issue off the Senate floor throughout the campaign season to protect Democrats from having to choose sides between labor unions that support the proposal and environmentalists who oppose it. Ms. Landrieu predicted that the Senate would have enough votes from Democrats and the 45 Republicans in the chamber to approve the project.

The last time the Senate took up the Keystone XL project, in a nonbinding budget vote in 2013, it showed 62 supporters — more than the 60 needed to clear a filibuster.

Sen. Bernard Sanders, a liberal Vermont independent who caucuses with Democrats, said the fight was unavoidable but he would go to the mat to defeat the pipeline project.

“They may want to get it through, but I want it defeated,” he said. “It’s not a question of my leadership; it’s a question of when it will come up. Obviously, Republicans will raise it the day after [they take over the Senate]. But whenever it’s raised, it has to be defeated.”

Still, it appears the bill will pass.

House Republican leaders quickly scheduled a vote on a bill copied from Ms. Landrieu’s legislation and scheduled a vote for Thursday. That legislation is sponsored by Rep. Bill Cassidy, Ms. Landrieu’s Republican opponent in the runoff election.

Ms. Landrieu insisted that she was not being upstaged by Mr. Cassidy.

“This is not about credit, it’s not about glory, it’s not about politics. It is about getting our job done,” she told reporters at the Capitol.

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, North Dakota Democrat and a staunch proponent of the pipeline, said the caucus infighting was irrelevant.

“The time to vote is now,” she said. “If we get the 15 votes, that’s it. That’s the way it works.”

Republicans said the Keystone and NSA votes signal a new approach for Mr. Reid, who put off thorny questions in the run-up to the elections.

Now Mr. Reid is ironing out the rest of the agenda with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who is poised to become majority leader when Republicans take control of the chamber next year.

For the White House, priorities for the lame-duck session include an omnibus budget rather than a short-term spending bill and getting nominations confirmed. Mr. Obama’s picks will face a much more arduous confirmation process when Republicans control the chamber.

The omnibus budget appealed to Democrats and Republicans, who could begin the next Congress with a clean slate and start working on the budget and spending bills for fiscal 2016.

“We’re going for an omnibus,” said Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, Maryland Democrat and chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Denis McDonough, White House chief of staff, met with Senate Democrats at the Capitol to urge them to push through presidential nominations.

“We really want to make sure we get our nominations so we can undertake all these important efforts that we’re leading across the globe,” Mr. McDonough told reporters after the closed-door meeting.

Senate Democratic leaders had not decided whether to advance Ms. Lynch’s nomination as attorney general, which Republicans want to delay until the next Congress.

Senate Assistant Majority Leader Richard J. Durbin of Illinois raised doubts about the ability to get Ms. Lynch through the confirmation process during the lame-duck session.

“I think it’s very hard with a limited amount of time and lots of things on the agenda,” he said.

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