Keystone Confrontation With White House Looms After Senate Passage

A veto showdown moved closer on Thursday after the Senate passed legislation to approve the Keystone XL pipeline and yank the decision out of President Barack Obama’s hands.

The bill (S 1) passed 62-36, with nine Democrats voting in favor of it. The Senate spent nearly three weeks debating Keystone, made a priority by Senate Republicans after they took control of the chamber.

The legislation still has more stops in its journey to Obama’s desk. Since the Senate approved a handful of amendments to the measure, the House will either have to take up that chamber’s version and pass it or move to go to conference. Lawmakers would have to move quickly for a conference to be assembled prior to a Feb. 16 recess week.

Senate Republicans have indicated they expect a conference, though they say no decisions have been made.

“We’ve already started talking to the House about whether we’ll need to go to conference or not,” said bill sponsor John Hoeven, R-N.D. “We’re having that discussion.”

Hoeven said he expected House and Senate leadership to reach a decision “very soon” but didn’t offer any details on timing.

Democrats who backed the bill on final passage were Michael Bennet of Colorado, Thomas R. Carper of Delaware, Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Jon Tester of Montana and Mark Warner of Virginia.

While House Republicans may not object to some of the amendments the Senate adopted, others may prove more problematic to a caucus that is not always unified on energy issues.

The Senate bill includes provisions that would promote energy efficiency programs, including many of the same ones the House endorsed last year.

But it also includes messaging language on climate change and taxes on the oil industry that House leaders could decide to try to massage or strip out entirely during conference, rather than take their chances on the floor.

The Senate bill includes nonbinding language that states that climate change is “real and not a hoax.” Senate Republicans overwhelmingly accepted that proposal since climate change was not described as being worsened by humans, but it’s unclear whether enough House GOP members would do the same.

The Senate measure also contains symbolic language calling on the House to pass legislation closing a so-called loophole that lets Canadian oil sands producers avoid paying an excise tax that funds oil spill cleanups. That amendment had broad Republican support in the Senate, but a House dominated by conservatives may not want to signal support for a tax increase on any constituent – especially before any effort to overhaul the tax code takes shape.

Some Democrats saw the long period for debate championed by Republicans as pointless in the end. "We’re grateful we had the opportunity to offer and vote on amendments, but those amendments don't do any good for the middle class if Republicans vote them down,” said New York Sen. Charles E. Schumer, the chamber’s No. 3 Democrat. “It’s like playing a ball game and not scoring any baskets. What's the point?”

Regardless of what course Congress takes to move the Keystone bill to the White House, Obama is not expected to sign it even if it includes measures he supports. White House spokesman Josh Earnest reiterated Thursday that Obama will veto legislation to approve the northern section of Keystone, which would stretch from the U.S.-Canada border in Montana through South Dakota and Nebraska.

That means Keystone supporters will be back at the drawing board in a matter of weeks or months, gaming out ways to get legislation to Obama’s desk again. Hoeven has previously suggested attaching Keystone approval to broader energy legislation or to appropriations bills the president may be loath to veto.

“There’s precedent for it,” he said Thursday, pointing to when Congress passed a payroll tax holiday extension in December 2011 that included language requiring Obama to make an up-or-down decision on the pipeline.

Obama rejected it a month later.

Steven T. Dennis contributed to this story.

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