Pipeline debate yields acrimonious return for Congress

By Manuel Quiñones, Nick Julaino | 01/07/2015 07:07 AM EST

The 114th Congress was less than an hour old before esoteric procedural disputes threatened to hamstring the Senate’s agenda — of course, this time, it was minority Democratic objections upending the plans of the new Republican majority.

Amid the pomp that usually surrounds the start of a legislative session — including the newly elected taking their oaths of office and posing for family photos with Vice President Joe Biden — the incoming Senate Republican majority was laying the groundwork to take up one of the most controversial energy-related debates: whether to approve the Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada.

But it didn’t take long for Senate Democrats to borrow a page from their GOP colleagues’ playbook of recent years and gum up the procedural works. Democrats objected to a procedural move that would have allowed an Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing today on KXL-approval legislation.

Meanwhile, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) used tools at his disposal to set up a direct floor vote on Sen. John Hoeven’s (R-N.D.) newly introduced S. 1 to approve the pipeline’s transboundary crossing, a bill the White House yesterday threatened to veto (E&ENews PM, Jan. 6).

The ENR Committee hearing that was scheduled for this morning has been canceled, but a markup planned for tomorrow could still proceed. A GOP leadership aide said yesterday that he expected the bill would still move out of committee tomorrow and a procedural vote to advance the bill on the floor would come Monday, followed by a robust amendment process that could stretch on for weeks.

Republicans said Democrats shot themselves in the foot by blocking today’s hearing, accomplishing little beyond denying themselves an opportunity to voice concerns about the pipeline and hear from their own expert witnesses.

"You know the signal it sends — I don’t think they really thought that through, because why start off as being the obstructionists?" said Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.). "It doesn’t make any sense, and besides that, it’s not going to change anything. We’re still going to do it."

But Democrats say McConnell’s move means the GOP, on day one, broke its commitment to regular order.

"By moving to bypass committees on the first bill of the new Congress, Senator McConnell is signaling that his promises of regular order have already expired and that he sees committees as nothing more than rubber stamps for Republican leadership," said Adam Jentleson, spokesman for Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

Teeing up Keystone as the first order of business opens the door to a variety of energy- and climate-related amendments, and Democrats are eager to offer controversial measures that could cause headaches for Republicans, especially those facing tough races next year, such as New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte. For example, one amendment Democrats are expected to file would increase funding for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), a key issue for New England states, paid for by raising royalty rates for oil companies, a proposal Republicans tend to resist.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), his party’s most vocal KXL supporter and a co-sponsor of the bill, suggested his fellow Democrats were being hypocritical in blocking today’s hearing after decrying GOP procedural tactics for years. He said he was unaware of the planned objection before it happened and would probe his colleagues to learn more when the caucus meets for its first weekly policy lunch of the year today.

"They were always saying the reason we can’t get to a bill is because the Republicans are objecting to everything. Then we’re going to start out with the first bill and do the same?" Manchin said yesterday evening. "It doesn’t make any sense to me at all."

Veto threat

Adding fuel to the fire surrounding KXL, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said that President Obama would likely veto whatever lawmakers send him. The Republican response was swift.

"This is simply another sign that President Obama is hopelessly out of touch and has no plans to listen to the American people or champion their priorities," House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said in a statement.

Many Republicans, and the Democrats who agree with them on issues like KXL, read more into the veto threat. They see it as evidence of an emboldened White House ready to push its agenda.

"I hoped different," said new House Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah). "If the first stuff that we send over there is automatically vetoed, what that simply says is we’re going to have a very difficult relationship moving forward."

American Petroleum Institute CEO Jack Gerard said yesterday in a gathering with reporters that the veto threat doesn’t bode well for the administration’s relationship with Congress, especially because the KXL bill has 60 supporters of both parties and will likely get several more votes.

"If you look at the veto threat, obviously you’ve got to get to 67 if you’re going to override the veto," Gerard said. "We believe today that there are probably 63 votes in the Senate for the Keystone XL pipeline."

He added, "I’m also aware that there are other senators who have voted against this in the past that have said ‘I’m getting tired of this, with the indecision,’ who have indicated they may be willing to change their vote."

The president has scheduled a meeting with lawmakers for next week, and Earnest said Obama would be seeking common ground despite disagreements. Asked whether the meeting meant the president would try a charm offensive with lawmakers, Earnest quipped about past efforts, "It worked great, didn’t it?"

Using a pipeline metaphor, Earnest said a spirit of good feeling flows both ways. "Maybe it raises questions about the willingness of Republicans to actually cooperate with this administration when you consider that the very first bill that is introduced in the United States Senate is one Republicans know the president opposes" because of the ongoing State Department review, he said.

Getting enough votes in both the Senate and House to override a presidential veto seems unlikely. When asked if pro-KXL forces have the votes, Bishop said, "You can answer that question yourself."

With that in mind, many Democrats now see the whole debate as wasting time on political messaging. "Now that President Obama has said he will veto the latest attempt by Republicans to approve the Keystone pipeline," said Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), "Keystone is now just political kabuki theater."

Bishop shot back, noting that Republicans are now in control of both chambers. "Harry Reid doesn’t set the agenda," Bishop said. "We [Congress] are a sovereign body. We send [the president] what we want to send him."

Like Hoeven, Bishop said there would be other chances to advance KXL on Capitol Hill following a veto. "If you want to be creative and think differently, there’s all sorts of options that are out there," he said. "But you’re jumping the gun right now."

Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) introduced the House version of the bill, H.R. 3, yesterday. The Rules Committee is scheduled to meet this morning to set debate parameters.

Reporter Hannah Northey contributed.

Schedule: The Rules Committee hearing is Wednesday, Jan. 7, at 10:30 a.m. in Capitol H-313.