House Vote, Nebraska Court Decision Push Keystone XL Forward But Obama Continues To Dither
President Obama's decision on Keystone XL is apparently to delay things long enough so he doesn't have to decide at all.
As last week ended, a vote in the House of Representatives and a decision from the Nebraska Supreme Court seemed to advance the cause of those who favor building the Keystone XL pipeline:
The House voted Friday to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, seizing on the momentum from a Nebraska Supreme Court ruling hours earlier that removed the last major legal obstacle to building the politically charged oil project.
Now the action moves to the Senate, which will take up its version of the Keystone bill next week. Taken together, the vote on the Hill and the court decision will put the issue squarely in the hands of President Barack Obama, who has put off making a decision on the Canada-to-U.S. oil artery during his six years in the White House.
In the legal ruling early Friday that rejected arguments from three anti-Keystone landowners, the Nebraska justices upheld a 2012 state law that allowed Republican Gov. Dave Heineman — rather than an independent commission — to approve Keystone’s route inside the state. That will let the State Department resume its almost-completed review of the pipeline, which the department halted in April amid uncertainty about the Nebraska case.
State Department officials have indicated it could still take months for Secretary John Kerry to offer his own judgment on whether building Keystone would be in the interests of the United States. Obama would have no deadline to make a final decision.
But environmentalists who have fought the pipeline for the past six years, savaging its projected 700,000-plus barrels of daily Canadian oil imports as anathema to the White House’s climate agenda, immediately vowed to ramp up the pressure on Obama and Kerry to say no. They pointed to an impassioned speech Kerry gave in December at a global climate conference in Lima, Peru, where he called global warming “everybody’s responsibility” and said that “if you’re a big developed nation and you’re not helping to lead, then you are part of the problem.”
“We are confident the President will stand with farmers, ranchers and tribal communities and reject Keystone XL once and for all,” said Bold Nebraska founder Jane Kleeb, whose group leads the anti-pipeline charge in the state. She said by email that the ruling “does clear the way for the State Department to complete their analysis and for federal agencies to weigh in on risks to water and climate. ”
Congress, meanwhile, is already moving to end the debate and greenlight the pipeline on its own, with 266 House members voting to approve the project, including 28 Democrats. The Senate set to take up its version of the bill next week.
“President Obama is now out of excuses for blocking the Keystone pipeline and the thousands of American jobs it would create,” House Speaker John Boehner said in a statement after the Nebraska ruling. “Finally, it’s time to start building.”
But the White House reiterated on Friday that Obama would veto the legislation, despite the elimination of the Nebraska case, which it had repeatedly cited to argue that it’s premature for Congress to step in.
“The State Department is examining the court’s decision as part of its process,” White House deputy press secretary Eric Schultz said in a statement. “As we have made clear, we are going to let that process play out. Regardless of the Nebraska ruling today, the House bill still conflicts with longstanding executive branch procedures regarding the authority of the president and prevents the thorough consideration of complex issues that could bear on U.S. national interests, and if presented to the President, he will veto the bill.”
Supporters of the bill don’t yet have the 67 Senate votes they would need to override a veto and have been scrambling to find the last few Democratic senators willing to push the legislation over the top.
The Senate is set to take up the Keystone XL debate this week and, while there is some hope that we might see a vote before Congress takes its brief recess for the Martin Luther King Jr Day holiday, it’s more likely that things will slow down a bit in the upper chamber. In many ways this will be the first real test for the promises that Majority Leader Mitch McConnnell has made about how he intended to depart from the way that Harry Reid had been running the Senate while Democrats were in charge of the body, and we’re likely to see Democrats test just how far the Senate GOP leadership is willing to allow the minority to go in asserting its voice in the body. For example, one of the primary Republican complaints during the course of Reid’s tenure was the extent to which he used his power to limit the ability of Republicans to offer amendments to bills. McConnell has said that he would be more liberal in allowing debate and amendment, but doing so will necessarily mean that debate will take longer and risks the possibility of a “poison pill” amendment being attached to the bill. At the same time, though, Republicans may want to take this extended time to allow them to pull together a veto proof majority in the Senate, although that seems unlikely at the moment and would not address the point that the House is still 23 votes short of being able to override a veto.
None of this seems likely to change the President’s mind, though, but the interesting thing about the Obama Administration’s position on Keystone is that it doesn’t really want to take a position. For six years now, they have engaged in one form or another of kicking the can down the road on the issue by delaying final decisions from the State Department or elsewhere with one excuse or another. Even a Presidential veto of the bill currently making its way through Congress would not really be the final word on the project. Many have speculated that the President doesn’t want to be held responsible for making any decision on this issue at all while he’s in office. Approving the project, which seems to make the most economic sense and which polling indicates most Americans support, would cause problems with a significant portion of the Democratic Party’s base. At the same time, though, blocking the project permanently would not play well with the public as a whole and would likely hurt Democrats in the south and middle west, not to mention potentially hurting the party in 2016. So, instead of making a decision the Administration continues to delay as long as possible, perhaps hoping that they can delay things long enough to leave the decision to the next President. I suppose it makes sense politically, but it’s not exactly the height of political leadership.