WASHINGTON — After weeks of unusually robust debate, the Senate on Thursday approved legislation to expedite construction of the massive Keystone XL pipeline, brushing aside President Barack Obama’s threat to veto the measure.
Passage secured not only a top Republican policy victory but also a political success for new Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who made Keystone his first priority.
The vote was an early test of McConnell’s promise to return the Senate to a place of freewheeling debate. The process took more than three weeks, including votes on nearly 50 amendments.
“We’ve had a whirlwind,” a noticeably upbeat McConnell said as he opened the chamber Thursday.
Nine Democrats joined all Republicans present to approve the bill by a 62-36 vote. Next the legislation will need to return to the House, where the Republican majority will have to accept the changes made by Senate amendments or negotiate a compromise. Timing on that step has not yet been set.
“We hope President Obama will now drop his threat to veto this common-sense bill,” said House Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio.
Republicans do not appear to have enough support in either chamber to override a veto.
Environmental groups criticized the Senate vote. “Putting the agenda of polluters ahead of the American public is bad policy and it’s bad politics,” said Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club. “But for Senate Republicans, it’s the cost of doing business with big, polluting campaign donors.”
Though some have suggested that the $8 billion Keystone project no longer pencils out because of falling oil prices, the company proposing the pipeline disputed such assertions and welcomed Senate passage Thursday.
“Keystone XL is a project that was needed when the price of a barrel of oil was less than $40 in 2008, when we first made our application; at more than $100 last year; and around $45 today,” said Russ Girling, president of TransCanada.
The bill removes the decision-making authority for Keystone from the administration, effectively allowing Congress to approve it. The pipeline would carry tar sands oil from Canada to Nebraska, and ultimately to the Gulf of the Mexico.
The sudden turnaround in the Senate came just days after a handful of Democrats who support the pipeline project withheld their votes, which were needed to advance the measure. They were protesting what some Democrats viewed as McConnell’s attempt to cut short the debate on their amendments.
The strategic move by Democrats put the Republican leader in a bind. McConnell had already allowed the Senate to process 24 amendments — more than in all of 2014 under Democratic control — and he wanted to wrap up the issue.
But with 54 Republicans in the Senate majority, the Kentucky Republican needed a handful of Democrats to reach the 60-vote threshold to break a filibuster and push the bill forward.
Cooler heads ultimately prevailed, and an agreement was reached to allow more votes on more amendments, mostly from Democrats. On Wednesday, the Senate processed an additional 12, followed by more Thursday.
Only a few amendments were accepted, but even the failed ones forced Republican senators to make politically painful votes that will probably come back to haunt them as negative campaign ads by their opponents.
For example, while the Senate overwhelmingly approved a Democratic amendment stating that climate change “was real and not a hoax,” it rejected several amendments that would have required something to be done about it.
Also failing was a Democratic proposal requiring that the oil shipped through the pipeline from Canada remain in the U.S., rather than be sent for export. Another would have mandated using only U.S.-made steel in the pipeline construction.
A Republican amendment to take the lesser prairie chicken off the endangered species list was also rejected.
The Keystone project would be among the biggest infrastructure developments in the nation, bringing 3,900 construction jobs and tens of thousands of indirect jobs during the building.
The potential job creation made Keystone a draw not only for Republicans but also for trade unions and some Democrats along the Midwestern route to Nebraska.
Ultimately, though, permanent jobs operating the pipeline will number just 35, according to a State Department analysis — drawing critics who say the project is not worth the environmental risks from possible spills.
Opponents argue another new pipeline will only worsen dependence on oil and contribute to climate change, though studies show Keystone alone would not likely have a major effect on greenhouse gas emissions.
©2015 Tribune Co.