The Sisyphean push for a new energy efficiency law is in danger again of being crushed by the boulder of an unrelated policy fight.
Senate Republicans would likely block consideration of the pending efficiency bill from Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio) unless they secure a vote on whether to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, senior aides say.
The Obama administration's decision last week to indefinitely delay a decision on whether to approve the controversial pipeline caught lawmakers and their aides off guard and may have roiled plans to squeeze Shaheen-Portman through a fairly narrow legislative window. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has not yet abandoned his plan to bring the bill to the floor early next month, but it is looking increasingly likely that he would have to allow at least one controversial amendment vote.
Before the Good Friday announcement, top KXL backers like Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) had signaled they would not seek a pipeline-approval vote in conjunction with the efficiency bill, reasoning that it would be premature given the expected expiration in early May of an interagency comment period. Now, with a decision indefinitely delayed, pipeline supporters believe they can wait no longer, aides said.
Speaking to reporters a week before the KXL delay was announced, Reid said he wanted to bring Shaheen-Portman to the floor "fairly early" in the coming work period and that he had "everyone's assurance" it would not be derailed by extraneous amendments, as happened when the bill was last on the floor in September. Even then, a spokesman for Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said he had not agreed to any deal to limit amendments (E&ENews PM, April 11).
"It's a very different conversation than it was a couple weeks ago," a Republican aide said this week.
Portman spokesman Caitlin Dunn said yesterday that sponsors remain "hopeful" the bill will come up in the coming weeks and "are working with Reid and McConnell on process," declining to provide further details. A Shaheen spokesman didn't respond to a request for comment.
The Senate is expected to take up legislation to increase the minimum wage as its first order of business when it returns from recess next week, and Shaheen-Portman could be the next item in the queue, a Democratic aide said this week. A Reid spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.
Inserting the pipeline into a debate over the inoffensive efficiency bill, S. 2074, is sure to cause headaches among politically vulnerable Democrats in this election year, and it could deepen existing fault lines within the party over whether the controversial project should go forward.
A key player will be Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), who has made her recent ascension to chairwoman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee a central argument for why her energy-rich state's voters should re-elect her in November. Reacting to the KXL delay last week, Landrieu promised "to take decisive action to get this pipeline permit approved."
It is not clear whether that action would include supporting an amendment to Shaheen-Portman. A Landrieu spokesman did not respond to a request for comment this week.
The campaign of Landrieu's GOP opponent, Rep. Bill Cassidy, yesterday highlighted the KXL delay to question the importance of her committee gavel.
"Senator Landrieu wants all of us to know that she is Obama's Energy Chair in the U.S. Senate, but grandstanding doesn't produce results," Cassidy campaign manager Joel DiGrado wrote in a fundraising email. "Obama's Senate Energy Chair must either agree with the president's poor decision to not act on Keystone or the only power she has is the power to get attention for herself."
Impacts on Democrats' re-election bids
Other vulnerable Democrats may welcome another opportunity to reiterate their support for the project. Democrats up for re-election who have previously backed the pipeline include Sens. Mark Begich of Alaska, Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Kay Hagan of North Carolina.
The biggest wild card is Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), who has faced repeated criticism from his Republican opponent, Rep. Cory Gardner, over his steadfast refusal to take a firm position on whether the pipeline should be built.
"Unfortunately, Senator Udall's decision to sit on the sidelines ... is symbolic of his 16 years in Washington," Gardner said in a statement last week reacting to the KXL delay. "While Senator Udall has voted over 99 percent of the time with President Obama, Coloradans continue to see that Senator Udall is just along for the ride."
When Hoeven secured a filibuster-proof 62 votes for a nonbinding pro-KXL amendment during last year's Senate budget debate, five Democrats crossed the aisle to his side who would face considerable pressure to vote against any binding pipeline amendment on the efficiency bill: Sens. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, Bill Nelson of Florida, Michael Bennet of Colorado, and Chris Coons and Tom Carper of Delaware.
If Reid decides to allow a KXL vote in order to secure Republican consent for debate on the Shaheen-Portman bill, environmental groups would need to help Democratic vote-counters peel off three of those five in order to keep the pipeline below 60 votes in the upper chamber. Bennet could prove at once easy and hard to get on the record against the pipeline, given his stature as chief of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) and the uniquely fence-sitting status of his fellow Coloradan Democrat.
Udall is the only Senate Democratic candidate facing a difficult race this fall who remains undecided on KXL, publicly stating he wants to see the long-delayed State Department pipeline review process run its course (E&E Daily, March 28).
McConnell's challenger, Alison Lundergan Grimes, yesterday became the latest red-state Democratic candidate to come out in favor of the controversial oil sands crude link.
Asked this week about how building the pipeline would affect wildlife, Udall offered an olive branch to both sides of the politically polarizing KXL debate. "That's why we're waiting for the science," he said at a Denver forum on climate change's effect on habitat. "I think you can build the pipeline and probably mitigate the effects of the pipeline."
Udall added, "The broader question is, if you produce all of that oil, the vast oil sands, what does it do to carbon loading in the atmosphere? I think that's why the administration is taking the time to really study this."
The acrimonious public clash over KXL's environmental footprint continued today, as the oil industry's lobbying group tangled with protesters camped in the capital for the week over advertising mocking their effort (see related story).
Reporters Elana Schor and Phil Taylor contributed.