WASHINGTON — In a struggle steeped in election-year politics, supporters of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline are seeking a swift Senate vote on legislation to approve construction of the project that environmentalists oppose strongly and the Obama administration has delayed indefinitely.
Pipeline advocates in the Senate, who include several Democrats on the ballot next fall as well as Republicans, hold a clear majority. They also may command more than the 60 votes needed to overcome blocking tactics by opponents, but they appear to be short of the two-thirds majority that would be needed to override any veto by President Barack Obama.
"I will press hard for a vote in the coming weeks to build this pipeline," Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., the chair of the Senate Energy Committee, said this week in a statement as lawmakers returned from a two-week break. Landrieu and Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, another pipeline supporter, stand accused by Republicans of being powerless to mandate the project's construction, given the numerous delays Obama has ordered without rendering a decision.
In addition, Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., faces pressure from Republicans to permit a vote on the project, with the Senate expected to debate energy-efficiency legislation in the next few days.
Sen. John Hoeven of North Dakota said he and other Republicans want the issue voted on either as a part of the energy-efficiency legislation or shortly afterward as a stand-alone bill. He said rank-and-file Republicans have "taken a very strong position" that one or the other must occur.
Aides said no decision had been made, but Reid said he had met in the last 24 hours with both Landrieu and Hoeven and left open the possibility of permitting a pipeline vote. "I'm open to anything that will move energy efficiency," he said.
The pipeline project has long been at a vexing crossroads of energy policy and politics that confronts Democrats.
The 1,179-mile project is proposed to go from Canada through Montana and South Dakota to Nebraska, where it would connect with existing pipelines to carry more than 800,000 barrels of crude oil a day to refineries along the Gulf Coast.
Advocates say it will create thousands of jobs and aid energy independence, but environmentalists warn of possible spills and say transporting oil will eventually contribute to global warming.
The State Department said in a Jan. 31 report that building the pipeline would not significantly boost carbon emissions because the oil was likely to find its way to market by other means. It added that transporting it by rail or truck would cause greater environmental problems than if the Keystone XL pipeline were built.
The administration unexpectedly ordered another delay in its decision earlier this month, citing a judge's ruling in Nebraska that overturned a state law permitting the pipeline to traverse the state.
Nebraska's Supreme Court isn't expected to hear an appeal to that ruling until September or October, and there could be more legal maneuvering after that to carry past the November elections.
Republicans seized on the announcement to ridicule Landrieu, whose campaign for re-election is based in part on a claim that her position as chair of the Senate Energy Committee is a major benefit to her oil-producing state.
Begich didn't wait for Republicans to criticize him. He said he was "frankly appalled at the continued foot-dragging by this administration on the Keystone project."
Further complicating the political calculations for Democrats, billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer has vowed to spend $50 million of his own money to make climate change a top-tier issue in the 2014 elections. He opposes the pipeline. Environmentally minded voters tend to back Democrats, and the party is already worried about a fall-off in voting this fall by other supporters because of the wobbly economic recovery and controversy over the nation's health care law.
In his comments to reporters, Reid said Republicans had first said they merely wanted to vote on a nonbinding measure expressing support for the pipeline. He said they have now switched positions and want to vote on legislation to allow the project to begin.
Landrieu told reporters that negotiations are continuing, and that it is not yet clear whether the legislation will be binding or not. Hoeven and other Republicans put it differently. "We ought to have a vote that matters," said Sen. John Thune, R-S.D.
In a nonbinding vote last year, 62 lawmakers supported construction. Among them were 17 Democrats, including Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., who has since retired and been replaced by another pipeline supporter, Sen. John Walsh.
More recently, 11 Senate Democrats urged Obama in a letter to approve the pipeline by the end of May. Six of the 11 are on the ballot this fall, including Landrieu, Begich and Walsh, and Sens. Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Mark Warner of Virginia.