Keystone votes fail in Senate, McCaskill absent
Republicans’ Keystone XL pipeline push was stopped short by the first Senate filibuster of 2015 as Democrats blocked Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s bid to end debate on the bill.
The new Senate majority will now extend its debate on approving Keystone — a measure that was seen as an easy GOP win just weeks ago — as Democrats pressed McConnell to hold more amendment votes as proof of his commitment to a more open process in the chamber than their own party used while it was in power.
A pair of 53-39 votes against ending debate on Keystone might have reached the 60-vote threshold they needed, however, had two absent pro-pipeline Democrats voted with the GOP Monday night, and winter storms not prevented some Republicans from reaching Washington.
“We’re not trying to prove a point to Senator McConnell,” Sen. Chuck Schumer, Democrats’ No. 3 leader and top message man, told reporters after the votes. “We hope his takeaway is that he’s got to keep the process open.”
The legislation that would yank President Barack Obama’s authority over the pipeline on Monday lost a vote from one of its longtime backers, Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) — now a member of party leadership as chief of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee — but picked up a vote from Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), the former DSCC chairman who has not formally signed onto the pipeline bill.
Two other Democrats who have backed stripping Obama’s power to decide on a Keystone permit, Sens. Claire McCaskill and Mark Warner, missed the Monday vote.
“I’d like to see us decide Keystone and move on,” Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, one of the pro-Keystone Democrats who voted with the GOP to cut off debate, told reporters.
Keystone’s backers initially expected the pipeline votes would end this week. But Democratic anger over the majority leader’s move to close off the debate on their amendments last week has made the pipeline bill a power struggle, with Democrats pushing McConnell to continue the freewheeling energy debate on the floor that has delved into topics ranging from climate change to eminent domain.
Republican aides knew ahead of Monday’s filibuster that they could not muster 60 votes, thanks in part to inclement weather that drove the number of absences up to eight. Besides McCaskill and Warner, who is traveling with Obama in India, four GOP senators were also unable to make the vote.
“That’s politics,” said one Senate GOP aide, referring to Democrats’ insistence on more votes before ending the Keystone debate. “At what point are these amendments no longer a sincere effort to improve the bill and just an effort to kill it by delay — that’s a determination Leader McConnell is going to have to make at some point.”
The Keystone bill’s future now may depend on whether the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee’s leaders, Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), can hammer out an agreement for more amendment votes that satisfies the bill’s Democratic supporters.
Those Keystone boosters in Obama’s party “need to be talked to,” Heitkamp said.
McConnell spokesman Don Stewart sought to draw a contrast with a November vote that nearly succeeded in approving the pipeline and attracted nine Democratic senators with no amendments considered. In addition to Tester, two of those Democrats voted against ending debate Monday: Sens. Bob Casey and Tom Carper.
The GOP aide, speaking candidly on condition of anonymity about the outlook for the Keystone bill, said McConnell could set up a new vote to cut off debate by Thursday, but that the chamber could see the pipeline debate carry on into early next week.
On Feb. 2, the Obama administration’s years-long review of a border-crossing permit for the Alberta-to-Texas pipeline enters its next stage as agencies such as EPA and the Interior Department face a deadline for commenting on the State Department’s finding that Keystone is unlikely to have a significant environmental impact.
Greens and liberals have lambasted that conclusion as ignoring the carbon emissions from extracting and burning the oil that Keystone would carry.
The American Petroleum Institute’s top lobbyist, Louis Finkel, indicated that an oil and gas industry that has waited for the Keystone approval for years was not concerned about the bill’s latest delay.
“Clearly, there’s a period of adjustment” when a new majority takes over, Finkel said, adding “both parties are feeling their way through.”
But one former Senate Republican aide acknowledged that Monday’s Keystone vote presents political pitfalls for Republicans despite its procedural necessity.
“The optics really matter on this fight more than other fights because at this point it’s purely political,” the aide said. “You don’t want to take an optical hit by putting up a vote when you know you don’t have 60.”
Still, that doesn’t mean the bill is in trouble, the former aide added. “It’s not going to be clean, but it’s going to get done.”
Whenever the Senate finishes work on its bill approving the heavy oil pipeline — which Obama has threatened to veto — it must either be go into conference with the House or sent across the Capitol for a second vote, thanks to the successful attachment of amendments this month.