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Is Keystone pipeline losing Democratic support?

The most interesting aspect of this week’s House vote in favor of constructing the Keystone XL pipeline was not the fact that it passed—which was widely expected—but the fact that it got 20 fewer votes than a similar proposal received one year ago.

Rep. Lee Terry’s (R-Neb.) bill would grant the remaining permits TransCanada needs to construct the massive project, which aims to ship heavy crude oil from Canada’s oil sands region to Gulf Coast refineries in the United States. The Obama administration has already awarded the needed permits for the project’s southern leg between Steele City, Okla., and Port Arthur, Tex., but the president has yet to decide whether to sign off on the northern leg, which begins in Hardisty, Alberta. Obama has authority to issue the permit, rather than Congress, because it crosses the U.S.-Canada border.

A wide array of groups—from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to the American Iron and Steel Institute—back the project as a way to create short-term construction jobs and a steady supply of oil. Environmentalists and some landowners along the route, however, argue the pipeline could lead to damaging spills and will accelerate climate change by easing the extraction of fossil fuels.

On Wednesday night, the House passed Terry’s bill by a vote of 241 to 175, with 19 Democrats voting in favor.  But on May 18, 2012 the House voted 261 to 152 in favor of a motion by Rep. John Barrow (D-Ga.), which would have done essentially the same thing: order the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to issue a permit for the pipeline within 30 days of receiving an application from TransCanada.

What explains the loss of 20 yes votes? Eight Democrats switched their votes, and a more liberal freshman class replaced some of the House’s more conservative members. Reps. John D. Dingell (Mich.), Daniel Lipinski (Ill.), David Loebsack (Iowa), Stephen Lynch (Mass.), Ed Perlmutter (Colo.), Dutch Ruppersberger (Md.), Albio Sires (N.J.) and Timothy Walz (Minn.) all voted aye for Barrow’s motion last year, and against Terry’s measure on Wednesday. Meanwhile, 42 of the 47 Democratic members of the freshman class opposed Terry’s bill.

Rep. Jan. Schakowsky (D-Ill.), a fierce critic of the pipeline, said in an interview shortly before the final vote that she was pleased that moderate Democrats were willing to defend President Obama’s right to make a final decision on Keystone. “Even proponents of the pipeline, like [West Virginia Democratic Rep.] Nick Jo Rahall and John Dingell are casting a no vote because of the process,” she said.

Terry spokesman Larry Farnsworth, however, interpreted the legislative dynamic differently.

"Congressman Terry is pleased that despite the best efforts of the Democratic leadership to whip the vote, his bipartisan legislation was still able to garner 19 votes from members on the other side of the aisle,” Farnsworth wrote in an e-mail. “Despite their strong whip effort, Democrats like John Dingell and Nick Rahall stood on the floor to say they supported building the Keystone pipeline before they voted against H.R. 3. The reality is this legislation to build Keystone grants all of the necessary permits to start and complete the project. To say that you're for it before you vote against it is a complete fallacy and those Democrats should stop playing politics with America's energy security."

One of the most interesting flips was Lynch, who lost his bid to become the Democratic candidate for the open Senate seat in Massachusetts after he was targeted by a coalition of environmentalists over his support for Keystone.

In a statement, Lynch called Terry’s bill “a blatant attempt to strip President Obama of his authority to conduct meaningful review of that project,” and challenged the idea that he had switched sides on the issue.

“The bill would set a very bad precedent and is very likely an example of unconstitutional overreach. For those reasons, I chose to oppose the bill,” he added. “I have repeatedly supported enhanced review of this project and await the administration's decision. I have enjoyed a strong lifetime record on environmental issues and I will continue to support efforts to meet our energy needs in a sustainable way.  My vote on H.R. 3 is consistent with my earlier positions."

Environmentalists said the vote suggests it is unlikely Congress will be able to force Obama’s hand on the issue. The Senate voted 62 to 37 in favor of the pipeline two months ago during the budget debate, but that was a non-binding amendment rather than a bill with the force of law.

“This vote shows that proponents of the Keystone pipeline are losing momentum,” said Tiernan Sittenfeld, senior vice president for government affairs at the League of Conservation Voters, an advocacy group.

Still, even though the White House  opposed Terry’s bill -- it issued a veto threat on it Tuesday -- it remains hard to predict what the president will do once the issue reaches his desk. For now, Keystone remains one of Washington's most contentious political battles.