WASHINGTON — Angered by President Barack Obama's delay of a proposed oil pipeline from Canada, Senate Republicans are moving to force him to act.
A bill introduced Wednesday by 37 GOP senators, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, would require the administration to approve the Keystone XL pipeline within 60 days, unless the president declares the project is not in the national interest.
The State Department decided on Nov. 10 to delay the project until 2013, after the presidential election, to allow the project's developer to figure out a way around Nebraska's Sandhills, an ecologically sensitive region that supplies water to eight nearby states.
McConnell, R-Ky., called the $7 billion pipeline the ultimate "shovel-ready" project and said it could create as many as 20,000 jobs.
He and other Republicans called Obama's decision to delay the project transparently political and said Obama had put his reelection above job creation.
"This is politics, pure and simple," said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska.
The GOP bill has little chance of approval in the Democratic-controlled Senate. But the measure illustrates Republicans' frustration over the pipeline delay and their belief that Obama is vulnerable on the jobs issue.
House Republicans are expected to highlight the jobs issue again on Friday, during a hearing before the Energy and Commerce Committee on the pipeline project. Several labor union leaders are among those scheduled to testify.
The pipeline project has divided labor groups eager for the jobs it would create from environmentalists and other traditional Democratic allies who oppose the pipeline as an ecological disaster waiting to happen.
The 1,700-mile pipeline proposed by Calgary-based TransCanada would carry as much as 700,000 barrels of oil a day from tar sands in Alberta, Canada, to refineries in Texas, passing through Montana, South Dakota, Kansas, Nebraska and Oklahoma.
Supporters say it could significantly reduce U.S. dependence on Middle Eastern oil while providing thousands of jobs. Opponents say the pipeline would bring "dirty oil" that requires huge amounts of energy to extract. They also worry about possible spills, noting that a current pipeline operated by TransCanada has had several spills in the past year.
The Senate bill's chief sponsor, Richard Lugar of Indiana, said Keystone XL presented a dramatic opportunity to boost U.S. national security and North American energy production by providing oil from the nation's closest ally and largest trading partner, Canada.
"President Obama has the opportunity to help create 20,000 jobs now. Incredibly he has delayed a decision... apparently in fear of offending a part of his political base," Lugar said.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest called that criticism off-base.
"I recognize that there are people in Washington, D.C., who want to apply a political label to every single thing that the president or other members of this administration do, but at the end of the day this is a decision that falls cleanly in line with the priorities that the president laid out" in a recent interview, Earnest said.
Obama told a Nebraska TV station that he needed to balance job creation and energy security with public health and the safety of communities along the pipeline route.
The bill's supporters include Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., who had opposed an earlier plan that would have routed the pipeline through the Nebraska Sandhills, a region of porous hills that includes a high concentration of wetlands and a key aquifer.
The State Department cited the Sandhills as a key reason to delay the project. The State Department has authority over the project because it crosses a U.S. border. After the delay was announced, TransCanada agreed to divert the pipeline around the Sandhills, although an exact route has not been determined.
Last week, Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman signed two laws aimed at oil pipelines, including one that requires state officials to conduct an environmental review of Keystone XL.
Johanns said the Senate bill would allow construction of the pipeline to begin in all states except Nebraska, where construction would be put off until an acceptable route is found and all required reviews are completed.
"The issues in Nebraska have been resolved," Johanns said, adding that the White House should not hide behind concern over the Sandhills as a reason to delay the project further.
Nebraska's other senator, Democrat Ben Nelson, called the GOP bill "well intentioned" but unnecessary. He said state officials have worked out a "good compromise" with TransCanada and the State Department that should be allowed to continue.
"If something goes awry, I can look at legislation at that time," he told reporters Wednesday.
Lugar, the senior Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he hopes to have a public hearing on the bill by the end of the year.
A spokeswoman for Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., the panel's chairman, said Kerry was in contact with Lugar and "evaluating how best to move forward."
Matthew Daly can be followed at http://twitter.com/MatthewDalyWDC