By Lisa Mascaro
After three weeks and nearly 50 amendment votes, the Senate on Thursday approved legislation to expedite construction of the Keystone XL pipeline.
Passage secured not only a top Republican policy victory, but a political success for new Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who made Keystone his priority. The issue also became the first test of his promise to return the Senate to freewheeling debate and a more open amendment process.
“We had a whirlwind,” said a noticeably upbeat McConnell, as he opened the chamber on Thursday morning. “Let’s notch one more win for the middle class by passing this Keystone project.”
Even though White House has threatened to veto the pipeline bill, nine Democrats joined all Republicans present on the 62-36 vote.
But passage Thursday doesn’t quite yet set the stage for what many expect to be a veto showdown between President Barack Obama and the new Republican Congress.
The bill will need to return to the House, where the Republican majority will have to accept — or reject — the changes made by the amendments in the Senate, or negotiate a compromise. Timing on that step has not yet been set.
“We hope President Obama will now drop his threat to veto this common-sense bill,” said Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio.
Based on Thursday’s vote, Keystone supporters do not appear to have enough support to override a veto.
The turnaround in the Senate on Thursday came just days after a handful of Democratic senators who support the $8 billion pipeline project withheld their needed votes to advance the measure.
They were protesting what some Democrats viewed as McConnell’s attempt to cut short the debate on their amendments.
The strategic move by Democrats put the GOP leader in a bind. McConnell had already allowed the Senate to process 24 amendments — more than in all of 2014 under Democratic control — and he wanted to wrap up the issue. But with 54 Republicans in the Senate majority, the Kentucky Republican needed a handful of Democrats to reach the 60-vote threshold to break a filibuster and push the bill forward.
Cooler heads ultimately prevailed, and an agreement was reached to allow more votes on more amendments, mostly Democratic ones. On Wednesday, the Senate processed another 12, followed by more on Thursday. Most failed.
“What we’ve seen over the last several weeks is the Senate I remember,” gushed Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois, the assistant Democratic leader.
But not everyone has been pleased with the expanded debate.
Though only a few amendments have so far been accepted, even the failed ones often forced politically painful votes for Republican senators — who are certain to relive the experience in campaign ads by their opponents.
For example, while the Senate overwhelmingly approved a Democratic amendment that climate change “was real and not a hoax,” it rejected several amendments that would have required something to be done about it.
Also failing was a Democratic proposal requiring that the oil being shipped on the pipeline from Canada remain in the U.S., rather than be sent for export; another would have mandated using only U.S.-made steel in the pipeline construction.
The project would be among the biggest infrastructure developments in the nation, bringing 3,900 construction jobs — and tens of thousands of indirect jobs during the building.
Potential job growth made Keystone a draw not only for Republicans, but also trade unions and some Democrats along the Midwestern route to Nebraska.
Ultimately, though, permanent jobs operating the pipeline will number just 35, according to a State Department analysis — drawing critics who say the project is not worth the environmental risks from possible spills.
Opponents argue another new pipeline will only worsen dependence on oil and contribute to climate change, though studies show Keystone alone would not likely have a major effect on greenhouse emissions.
In the Senate on Thursday, the mood was clearly improved after the long weeks slogging through the debate.
The pipeline legislation has been a top priority for the new Republican Congress, which wants to pressure Obama to approve the stalled project.
The White House has warned it would veto the measure, setting up a showdown both sides seem game to begin.
But the bumpy process in the Senate has tested patience. The Senate has been debating the bill since shortly after the new Congress began Jan. 6.
©2015 Tribune Co.