WASHINGTON, Jan. 6, 2015 – If all goes as planned by the Senate’s new GOP leadership, the first legislation to land on the chamber’s  floor will be the “Keystone XL Pipeline Approval Actauthorizing construction of the controversial pipeline to ship Canadian tar sands oil to Texas refineries. New Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., promises that Keystone will be the first bill sent to President Obama for his signature – or a threatened veto. 

Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., the Commerce Committee’s new chairman, explained that “right out of the gate, we’re going to act in the Senate on the Keystone pipeline. We think the president ought to sign that into law.” Speaking on Fox News Sunday, he added that this first bill will allow the GOP “to find out very early whether the president wants to play ball.”

Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D, and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., introduced a bill Tuesday authorizing the pipeline’s construction.

Wasting no time, the White House indicated yesterday afternoon that the president would veto the legislation. “If this bill passes this Congress, the president wouldn’t sign it,” said White House press secretary Josh Earnest.

In a Statement of Administration Policy (SAP) released today, the White House said a veto is warranted because the legislation would circumvent “longstanding and proven processes for determining whether cross-border pipelines serve the national interest.” The SAP specifically referred to the review of the project under way by the State Department. It also noted that the bill would authorize the project despite uncertainty due to ongoing litigation in Nebraska, one of the states through which the pipeline would pass.

McConnell quickly fired back: “The President threatening to veto the first bipartisan infrastructure bill of the new Congress must come as a shock to the American people who spoke loudly in November in favor of bipartisan accomplishments. It’s interesting to note that the President declined to issue a veto threat last month when a Democrat senator was trying to save her job over the exact same Keystone bill. Once again the President is standing in the way of a shovel-ready jobs project that would help thousands of Americans find work.”

If the Keystone bill moves to the floor, as expected, the Senate debate could provide a long-overdue discussion about overall U.S. energy policy. But already, there appears to be changes underway in the process.

The Keystone process was expected to start today, Wednesday, Jan. 7, with a full Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing, chaired by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, a strong supporter of the project. The planned next steps were to have a committee markup and vote Thursday, Jan. 8, followed by a full Senate floor debate starting Monday, Jan. 12. But as of Wednesday morning, the full hearing had been pulled with no formal indication of when – or if - it will be rescheduled. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said Sen. McConnell needed a unanimous consent agreement to get the committee organized in time for the hearing this morning, but Democrats objected.

Meanwhile, the House could vote on the Keystone bill as early as Friday, skipping the committee process and taking it straight to the floor. 

Debating the bipartisan Keystone bill will be the first test of McConnell’s plan to show that Republicans can govern responsibly by passing bipartisan legislation focused on the public’s primary concerns about jobs and growing the U.S. economy. In the Republican view, building Keystone will boost both jobs and the economy. That’s despite public opinion polls which consistently show overwhelming public support, even among Republican voters, for renewable energy rather than fossil fuels.

According to the GOP playbook, a Keystone committee hearing and vote, followed by Senate floor debate will re-establish “regular order” in the Senate. That means originating legislation in committee and allowing ample opportunity both in committee and on the floor for amendments from both parties and full debate.

One key to both the Keystone bill and subsequent energy measures is that the Republicans have 54 Senate seats, six short of the 60 needed to move legislation forward, and 13 short of the 67 needed to overcome a veto. Those numbers mean that Republicans will always need some votes from Democrats to achieve their goal of creating a positive legislative record in preparation for the 2016 presidential elections.

One Senate staffer explained to Agri-Pulse that he’s confident there will be at least nine Democrats joining Republican senators in support of the Keystone bill. That adds up to 63 votes for Keystone, well over the 60-vote hurdle and close to the 67 needed to overcome the veto threat. But Republicans will still need to find more support among Democrats.

Aware of the GOP’s need for Democrats’ votes, Sens. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., wrote their fellow Democrats laying out strategy for dealing with the Keystone bill. They explained that “Consideration of this bill will provide us with the first opportunity to demonstrate that we will be united, energetic and effective in offering amendments that create a clear contrast with the Republican majority.”

Rebutting GOP claims that Keystone will be a major job creator, Schumer insists the pipeline will add only about 35 permanent jobs after construction is complete. So Schumer says that if Keystone is passed, it should include renewable energy amendments designed to create “tens of thousands” of permanent renewable energy jobs.

But he also says that even if the Keystone bill is amended to include more support for renewables, Obama should veto the legislation.

According to one Senate staffer, all of the Democrats’ renewable energy amendments will be rejected because they wouldn’t flip any Democrats’ votes and so there’s “no incentive” for Republican concessions. He sees no likelihood of majority support in committee or on the Senate floor for renewable energy subsidies. Instead, he sees the GOP firmly committed to “get out of the business of picking winners and losers amongst fuel supply sources.”

A far more likely addition to the Keystone bill is the bipartisan energy efficiency legislation championed by Sens. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., last year. That bill stalled in 2014 when Republicans tried to add amendments including authorization for the Keystone pipeline. This time, reversing the order by adding the popular Portman/Shaheen bill to Keystone should be an easy sell on both sides of the aisle.

What won’t sell, the staffer believes, are attempts to add any form of new support for renewable energy sources like wind, solar or biofuels. He points out that the new Republican majority in the Senate and the party’s enhanced House majority oppose “government intervention in going after fossil fuels while subsidizing renewables.” Insisting that renewable energy still can’t compete without government subsidies and that wind and solar depend on the artificial demand created by renewable electricity standards in 29 states, he looks forward to “when the price of gas spikes up” and the American public once again appreciates the fact that “we’ve got an abundant, reliable, affordable supply of coal right here.”

The Senate staffer is also confident that after years of having former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., keep a tight lid on amendments and debate in the Senate, Democrats will join Republicans in welcoming a far more open and productive process that includes “building bipartisan coalitions within the committee structure, and having senators on both sides invested in the success of legislation.” He expects that following the Keystone bill with the Portman/Shaheen Energy Efficiency bill possibly attached, the next bipartisan legislative successes will include bills to promote new pipeline and other energy infrastructure construction and a bill to end the 40-year-old ban on exporting crude oil.

(Story updated Jan. 7, 2015, 12:45 p.m.)


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