Top Senate Republicans have begun to acknowledge publicly that the payroll tax cut conference is not the place to legislate the Keystone XL pipeline, while House Republicans are conceding privately that their interests are best served by placing it elsewhere.
Still bruised from a bitter end to December's payroll tax holiday fight, Republicans are looking to a forthcoming House energy and infrastructure bill, which could keep the pipeline issue alive for GOP Members eager to draw a contrast with President Barack Obama as the November election nears.
Republican conferees have been hesitant to tip their hand, but Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) hinted in a television interview over the weekend that his forthcoming American Energy and Infrastructure Jobs Act could be a better vehicle for a measure to force the pipeline's construction.
"Thank God," Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said of separating the Keystone XL pipeline issue from the payroll debate. "I think it's a wonderful idea. Americans want the pipeline, but they didn't relate that as sufficient reason to not give 160 million Americans tax relief."
In December, Republicans were able to win big on the pipeline by tying its construction to job creation. But the GOP's messy endgame on the payroll cut extension — particularly in the House, where Members tried to block a two-month extension agreed upon by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) — has provided Republicans with an incentive to quickly wrap up negotiations.
This is not to say that the GOP won't bring up the pipeline issue in conference meetings — it likely will. But attaching the provision to a five-year energy and infrastructure bill that is a priority for Boehner could prove to be an all-around win for a GOP Conference looking to score one.
Republicans will be able to use the bill to prolong their media campaign and floor battle on jobs against Obama, according to sources tracking the issue. The pipeline also could be viewed yet again as a carrot for conservative House Republicans who are reluctant to support any legislation that endorses government spending.
It could also draw bipartisan support from Democrats who want the pipeline built but don't like how Republicans are handling the issue. House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer said Tuesday he thinks the highway bill is a "more appropriate" venue.
"If it can be considered on substance, I think, you know, I think certainly it ought to get consideration," the Maryland Democrat said. "The poison pill is trying to put the president in a corner on this issue for political purposes, as opposed to substantively getting this considered on its merits."