Evan Vucci, Associated Press
WASHINGTON — Democrats are grappling with an election-year dilemma posed by the Keystone XL oil pipeline.
Wealthy party donors are funding candidates who oppose the project — a high-profile symbol of the political debate over climate change. But some of the party's most vulnerable incumbents are pipeline boosters, and whether Democrats retain control of the Senate after the 2014 midterm elections may hinge on them.
The dilemma was highlighted Thursday as President Barack Obama's former national security adviser — and now a consultant to the oil industry — said Obama should approve the pipeline to send Russian President Vladimir Putin a message that "international bullies" can't use energy security as a weapon.
The comments by retired Gen. James Jones came as a top Democratic donor again urged that the pipeline be rejected.
Tom Steyer, a billionaire environmentalist, has vowed to spend $100 million —$50 million of his own money and $50 million from other donors — to make climate change a top-tier issue in the 2014 elections.
Steyer, who opposes Keystone, declined to say whether he would contribute to Democrats who support the pipeline, including Sens. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Mark Begich of Alaska, Mark Pryor of Arkansas and John Walsh of Montana. All face strong challenges from Republicans in energy-producing states where Obama lost to Mitt Romney in 2012.
Still, a spokesman said Steyer believes Democratic control of the Senate is important from a climate perspective.
Jones told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the Canada-to-Texas pipeline is a litmus test of whether the U.S. is serious about national and global energy security. Approval of the pipeline would help ensure that North America becomes a global energy hub and a reliable energy source to the U.S and its allies, Jones said. Rejecting the pipeline would "make Mr. Putin's day and strengthen his hand," he said.
Jones, who left the Obama administration in 2010, now heads a consulting firm that has done work for the American Petroleum Institute, the oil industry's chief trade group, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Both groups support the pipeline.
Landrieu, who chairs the Senate Energy Committee, pressed Secretary of State John Kerry on the pipeline issue Thursday at an appropriations hearing. Landrieu called approval of the pipeline "critical" to the national interest and said that in Louisiana, "it's hard for us to even understand why there is a question" whether it should be approved. The State Department has jurisdiction over the pipeline because it crosses a U.S. border.
Kerry told Landrieu he was "not at liberty to go into my thinking at this point," but added: "I am approaching this, you know, tabula rasa. I'm going to look at all the arguments, both sides, all sides, whatever, evaluate them and make the best judgment I can about what is in the national interest."
Polls show Americans support the pipeline, with 65 percent saying they approved of it in a new Washington Post-ABC News poll. Twenty-two percent of those polled opposed the pipeline.
Steyer, a former hedge fund manager, spent more than $10 million to help elect Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe and Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., last year. In a conference call with reporters Thursday, Steyer declined to comment on where his advocacy group, NextGen Climate Action, would spend money this fall. But he noted the views of Landrieu and other endangered Democratic incumbents were well known.
"I think those senators voted on this long before 2014," he said, "so I don't think there's any real change here."
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