For four years, Republicans in Congress have been accused of obstructing President Obama’s agenda. Now, with the House and Senate under their control, GOP leaders are ready to turn the tables.
During the next few months, congressional leaders plan to approve a steady stream of legislation that has the support of at least a few Democrats but is opposed by the White House. Obama will be forced either to sign these “bipartisan” bills — including several that would begin to dismantle his Affordable Care Act — or dust off the veto pen he has used only twice in six years.
The test case for this strategy cleared the House on Friday: approval of the long-delayed Keystone XL oil pipeline.
Obama has threatened to veto the Keystone bill, along with two others. Nonetheless, the House voted 266 to 153 to approve the measure, with 28 Democrats joining all but one Republican voting yes. The bill goes to the Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) plans to stage a lengthy, high-profile debate that is likely to stretch through Obama’s State of the Union address Jan. 20.
Both parties are girding for a rhetorical battle that could have far-reaching political implications. Democrats, for instance, plan to offer an amendment by Sen. Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.) that would force Republicans to go on record either acknowledging or denying that climate change “is real” and “is caused by human activities.”
They also will seek to force Canadian oil companies using the pipeline to pay into a federal oil-spill trust fund, a change Republicans are willing to include in the final bill, House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) said Friday.
Senate Republicans, meanwhile, plan to focus on Keystone’s potential to create jobs and foster U.S. energy independence, as well as its broad appeal to the general public.
“We’re going to put this bill on the president’s desk. And he’s going to have to make a decision whether to side with jobs and the economy or whether to side with environmental extremists,” said Sen. John Barrasso (Wyo.), a member of the Senate GOP leadership.
Republicans have little hope of altering the bill in ways that could win Obama’s approval. And they concede that they are unlikely to persuade four additional Democrats to join the nine who support it, which is what it would take to override a veto.
“Keystone is like a dead horse, and we’re continuing to beat it,” said Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), who opposes the measure on grounds that fossil-fuel use is warming the planet, melting polar ice, raising sea levels and drowning South Florida.
But enacting the legislation is not the primary goal of GOP leaders determined to establish themselves as a centrist, governing majority.
“If we can’t override the veto,” Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) told Fox News, “I think it’s pretty clear to the public and everybody else that the president is the obstructionist, not the Congress.”
Hours before Friday’s House vote, the Nebraska Supreme Court torpedoed one of Obama’s prime reasons for opposing the measure. The court upheld a Nebraska law that gave Gov. Dave Heineman (R) the authority to approve the pipeline’s route through the state, overturning a lower-court ruling. The White House has repeatedly cited the pending case as cause for Congress to wait.
Instead, the House voted to end a federal review that has dragged on for six years and permit the Calgary, Alberta-based oil company TransCanada to build the Keystone XL, a steel pipeline that would carry as many as 830,000 barrels a day of oil sands crude from fields in Alberta to refineries in Texas.
The pipeline would equal just 1 percent of the nation’s web of oil pipelines. But over the years, it has become a potent symbol for both environmentalists and oil-industry champions, drawing exaggerated claims from both sides.
For example, foes of the pipeline, as well as Obama, have said it would carry Canadian crude oil across the United States so it can be exported abroad. “America is bearing the risk of carrying Canada’s dirty oil to a world market,” Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), the senior Democrat on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said Thursday during a committee meeting in which Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) joined Republicans in approving the bill, 13 to 9.
In fact, TransCanada is looking to the United States because the tar-like crude from the Alberta oil sands cannot be processed at most refineries. Gulf Coast refineries in Texas are uniquely equipped to do the job.
Canadian oil sands crude processed in Texas has pushed out imports from Venezuela and Mexico. Although some of the refined product — mostly gasoline and diesel fuel — is consumed domestically, a large portion is exported to Europe and Latin America.
Pipeline foes also argue that plummeting oil prices make the pipeline unnecessary. But because pipeline transit is cheaper than railroads, oil producers are still committed to the project. TransCanada officials say the pipeline offers a better alternative to rail no matter how low oil prices fall.
Brad Bellows, director of external communications of MEG Energy, a producer of Canadian oil sands, said it costs “north of $15 a barrel” and takes two weeks to ship crude from the oil sands to the Gulf Coast by rail. Pipeline charges are a fraction of that amount.
“Pipelines are certainly the most economic and best option,” said Bellows, whose company has not purchased space in Keystone XL.
As for concerns about global warming, the State Department has said construction of the Keystone XL is irrelevant: Without the pipeline, oil producers would simply keep using rail, which emits more greenhouse gases.
Then there are the claims about jobs. Republicans point to a State Department estimate that the project would create 42,000 jobs. But those positions would not be permanent; the State Department report refers to 42,000 “job years.”
That translates to 1,950 people working in each of the two years needed to build the pipeline and an additional 13,000 during that time to supply goods and services. Once the project is completed, operations would require just 35 permanent employees and 15 temporary contractors.
When Senate debate begins next week, the jobs claim will rank high among Democratic targets. In an internal memo, Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) invited other ideas for creating “a clear contrast with the Republican majority” and to demonstrate “that we are working hard to make the average American family better off while Republicans are helping narrow special interests.”
Republicans, meanwhile, are putting their faith in the pipeline’s popular appeal; about two-thirds of those polled have consistently voiced support for the project. And they are eagerly anticipating the opportunity to cry obstruction when Obama vetoes what amounts to a bipartisan infrastructure bill, probably not long after making a speech to Congress in which the president begs lawmakers to send him bipartisan infrastructure bills.
“For a president who said he’d like to see more bipartisan cooperation,” McConnell said of Keystone on the Senate floor, “this, my colleagues, is a perfect opportunity.”