Top Democrat pushes for Senate vote to approve Keystone XL pipeline

A week after being forced into a runoff for her seat, U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) called for a vote in the U.S. Senate to approve the Keystone XL pipeline.

By Jon Queally, Common Dreams

Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, who is currently embattled in a runoff race to retain her seat from a Republican challenger, announced on Wednesday her desire to hold a vote to approve the controversial Keystone XL pipeline as early as Thursday.

As Fuel Fix reported on Wednesday afternoon:

"I believe it is time to act," Landrieu, who polls show is trailing Republican Representative Bill Cassidy ahead of a Dec. 6 vote. "I believe we should take the new majority leader at his word and stop blocking legislation that is broadly supported by the public and has been for some time."

Such a vote may be symbolic, highlighting Landrieu's support for the pipeline and her influence on energy issues in Washington -- a centerpiece of her campaign. Democratic leaders may have trouble mustering the votes for passage, and President Barack Obama could veto the measure.

Landrieu said she was "confident that we have the additional votes necessary to pass it."

Landrieu spoke today as Congress convened for a lame-duck session after Republicans won control of the Senate in the Nov. 4 election. Republicans picked up eight seats thus far, while her race goes to a runoff because neither she nor Cassidy, 57, won a majority.

Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois, the chamber's second-ranking Democrat, today said party leaders were discussing trying to schedule a Keystone vote to aid Landrieu.

"It's obviously an important issue to her, and it has importance in terms of timing with her runoff coming up," Durbin said. "What she's trying to do is find an opportunity to bring this up publicly in the closing weeks of the session."

Within an hour of Landrieu's announcement, according to the Associated Press, Republican leaders in the House announced they would vote Thursday on a bill sponsored by her Republican rival, Rep. Bill Cassidy, to build the pipeline.

Responding to the news via Twitter, communication director for the climate action group Jamie Henn declared:

And added:

Speculation over such moves surfaced Tuesday after several outlets (including Bloomberg and the Washington Post) reported that Landrieu and her fellow Democrats might try to push through a lame-duck measure designed to override the State Department's and President Obama's current authority to approve or reject the project, which would transport tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada to the refineries on the Gulf coast in her home state. The calculus, according to statements from Senate staffers, was that a vote to approve the pipeline -- which has been the target of fierce and determined protest by environmentalists and climate campaigners -- would actually help Landreiu's re-election chances. Critics of that calculation, called that thinking, among other things, "absurd" and "insanely dumb."

Responding to that earlier speculation, Henn had said that any orchestrated push by Senate Democrats to approve the pipeline would be an enormous mistake. "A lame duck vote on KXL would be a lose-lose for Democrats," he stated. "It does nothing to help Landrieu—and a lot to hurt the party."

Writing at the Washington Post, Paul Waldman criticized the reported ploy by the Democrats by saying it would be an "absurd fool's errand" and a profound example of the party's continued strategic ineptitude. Putting aside the well-documented environmental destruction that building the pipeline and expanding tar sands development would unleash, Waldman points out that even in realpolitik terms, the thinking is irrational and shows, once again, that "Democrats are willing to hand Republicans a significant policy victory while getting absolutely nothing in return." He writes:

Take a look around at what happened in this election. Every Democrat who tried to avert defeat by saying "Please don't hate me!" to Republican voters lost. Alison Lundergan Grimes said "I'm not Barack Obama," shot guns and sang the praises of coal, and lost. Mark Pryor voted against the Manchin-Toomey background check bill (which was supported by huge majorities of voters), and lost. Mark Begich said he'd be a thorn in Obama's butt, and lost. They might have lost anyway, but it's clear that all but denying they were members of the Democratic party didn't help them.

The Democrats who survived the bloodbath did so by making sure not to alienate their own base. The one Democrat in a close Senate race who won was New Hampshire's Jeanne Shaheen, who forthrightly defended the Affordable Care Act and didn't bash President Obama like so many other Democrats did. Turnout in New Hampshire remained strong, and she prevailed. In Colorado, Governor John Hickenlooper held on despite being targeted by the NRA for his gun control efforts. He didn't run away from that record or cut ads with him shooting to try to convince the voters opposed to him that he was really on their side.

The issue of oil in Louisiana isn't in quite the same category -- it's about economics and doesn't have the same partisan intensity associated with it as something like guns, at least in that state. But what exactly do congressional Democrats think voters there will conclude if they hear that the Keystone XL pipeline is going to be built? That Mary Landrieu loves oil? I'm pretty sure they know that already. If you were a Louisiana Democrat, would that make you eager to turn out in a runoff election to support Landrieu? Hardly. And it won't convince any Republicans or independents to come to her side, particularly when her opponent comes from the "Drill, baby, drill!" party.

Of course, that analysis leaves out the existential threat of tar sands oil made famous by former NASA scientists James Hansen who stated that if the Keystone XL pipeline does get built, it would be "Game over for the climate."

Writing for the The New Republic, Rebecca Leber characterized any possible attempt to push through the Keystone XL pipeline by Democrats as "insanely dumb" and suggested that "instead of voting to approve a pipeline that would carry up to 700,000 barrels of crude oil across the country per day, maybe Democrats should start planning on how to save Obama's environmental legacy when the GOP Congress wages war on it" come January.

R.L. Miller, cofounder of the grassroots organizing group Climate Hawks Vote, responded to a request for comment from TNR by emailing this statement: "It's genuinely mystifying how Senate Democrats think one vote would turn undecided Louisianans into Landrieu-voting Democrats ... Landrieu got 43% of the vote on November 4 and the Republicans (Cassidy and Maness) got a combined 57%. So it's not a winning tactic. More important, it's a cynical and shortsighted trade of a project with serious climate consequences in the interest of protecting one seat in the minority."

Offering his prediction, Waldman suggested that if the Democratic leadership allows the vote and "[a]fter they've given Republicans this huge gift, and Landrieu ends up losing anyway because Democratic voters don't see much reason to turn out in the runoff, the Democrats in Congress will say, 'Gee, I wonder why that didn’t work?'"