WASHINGTON — Senate Democrats blocked a move Tuesday to compel construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, dealing a sharp loss to one of their own, Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu, who had pinned her chances for re-election on the measure’s approval.
The vote was a victory for environmental activists, who have turned the pipeline’s defeat into one of the central symbolic causes of their movement. But Republicans, who will take majority control of the Senate in the next Congress, vowed to return to the fight next year.
On a 59-41 roll call, Ms. Landrieu’s campaign fell one vote shy of passing legislation meant to force President Barack Obama to approve the nearly 1,700-mile, $7.6 billion project, which would deliver 830,000 barrels of oil a day from western Canada to the American heartland. With just 14 Democrats backing it, Ms. Landrieu’s bill fell victim to a filibuster by her own party. All 45 Republicans voted for the measure.
In rejecting the bill, the Senate has granted Mr. Obama a temporary reprieve from a difficult decision: whether to side with the environmentalists, who have been his staunch allies, or with many moderate Democrats, who hope to use the issue to win over swing voters.
Already six years in the making, the Keystone fight had become a final rallying cry for Ms. Landrieu, a three-term senator facing a runoff election Dec. 6. With her Keystone campaign, she placed a political bet on demonstrating both her clout in Washington and her independence from an unpopular Mr. Obama. She already faced a steep climb in a conservative state dominated by energy interests, and her task is now even tougher; if she loses next month, Republicans will hold a majority with 54 seats come January, up from their current 45-seat caucus.
“This is for Americans, for an American middle class,” Ms. Landrieu pleaded Tuesday evening, moments before the vote, arguing that jobs related to the pipeline would go to rural American communities struggling in the economic recovery. “The time to act is now.”
She then thanked her Democratic colleagues who supported her, including three who lost their elections this month. Once the roll call started, Ms. Landrieu stood mostly by herself in the chamber but at one point shared a hug with Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., one of the losing incumbents.
Supporters argue that the new pipeline would lead to more efficient delivery of oil into domestic markets, helping secure a reliable source of energy, boosting the national economy and creating jobs tied to the pipeline’s construction. Opponents say it would facilitate the harvesting of oil from the environmentally dirty tar sands in Canada, leading to health risks, and would come online as domestic oil production is already booming.
After the vote Tuesday night, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., set to take over as majority leader, told his colleagues that he would bring up the pipeline “very early” next year.
Before the vote, the White House was careful not to issue a veto threat, even as officials made clear that Mr. Obama was likely to invoke one should the measure pass the Senate.
“It certainly is a piece of legislation that the president doesn’t support, because the president believes that this is something that should be determined through the State Department and the regular process that is in place to evaluate projects like this,” said White House press secretary Josh Earnest. He added that senior Obama advisers have recommended vetoes on “similar pieces of legislation” introduced in the past.
But, as Mr. McConnell emphasized, the issue will not disappear. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has also indicated that he will bring up the matter next year, once Republicans control both chambers. Ten of the Senate Democrats who voted yes will be back next year, adding to the 53 or 54 Republicans whose votes Mr. McConnell can count on.
That places the pipeline’s likely support in senatorial limbo — enough to pass a bill and send it to the White House, but a few votes shy of the two-thirds majority needed to override a veto. That prospect has led some supporters to suggest attaching it to a key spending bill or another must-pass measure, forcing a tougher political choice on the president. Even some Democrats are open to using Keystone XL approval as a negotiating chit in exchange for a significant policy concession from congressional Republicans, but it is unclear how receptive White House officials are to that idea.
After the Nov. 4 wipeout for Democrats, Ms. Landrieu was thrust into a runoff against Rep. Bill Cassidy, R-La. State rules require the winner to reach 50 percent of the vote; Ms. Landrieu received 42 percent to Mr. Cassidy’s 41 percent, as the remaining votes went mostly to other Republicans on the ballot.
With financial backing disappearing in the face of her long odds, Ms. Landrieu made passing the Keystone legislation her last-gasp attempt to show voters back home that she still had influence in Washington. She had run her general-election campaign boasting of her Energy and Natural Resources Committee chairmanship, a gavel that she predicted would lead to tangible results for Louisiana. She has been a strong oil and gas industry supporter, long before the Keystone fight.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., after years of tangling the chamber in knots over the pipeline, last week relented to Ms. Landrieu and allowed Tuesday’s vote, even though he remained opposed to the measure and advised Mr. Obama to veto it.
Under a bipartisan agreement, Ms. Landrieu was given a single vote on the legislation with a supermajority threshold of 60 votes.
First Published November 18, 2014 7:15 PM