WASHINGTON -- Setting up what is likely to be the first of many confrontations with the White House, the Republican-controlled Senate Tuesday announced its first piece of legislation, a bill to approve the construction of the much-delayed Keystone XL oil pipeline.
The bipartisan bill, which is sponsored by all 54 Republicans and six Democrats, was introduced after the new Senate convened. Supporters said they had 63 votes in favor of the bill, enough to overcome a filibuster but not a presidential veto. The House is expected to vote and pass a bill approving the $5.4 billion project, which was first proposed in 2008, on Friday.
"The Congress on a bipartisan basis is saying we are approving this project," said Sen. John Hoeven, the chief Republican sponsor, at a news conference Tuesday. He said if the president chooses to veto the bill, he would work to attach it to a broader energy package or must-pass spending bills.
The bill is identical to one that failed to pass the Senate by a single vote in November, when Democrats were in control and Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana pushed for a vote to save her Senate seat. She lost to Republican Rep. Bill Cassidy, who sponsored the successful House bill approving the pipeline.
But unlike last time, the odds of passage are much improved with the Republican takeover of the Senate. The bill will also test Republicans' commitment to more open debate. Both Hoeven, R-N.D., and his Democratic co-sponsor Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, welcomed additions to the bill, which they hoped would increase support.
In a letter to Democrats from their leadership obtained by the AP, Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York and Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan said the Keystone bill was "the first opportunity to demonstrate that we will be united, energetic, and effective in offering amendments that create a clear contrast with the Republican majority."
Among the ideas suggested in the letter were measures to prohibit exporting the oil abroad, to ensure American iron, steel and other goods were used in the pipeline's construction and to match every job created by the pipeline with an investment in clean energy.
The White House never issued a formal opinion on the Senate bill last year. But President Barack Obama has been increasingly critical of the project recently, and has resisted prior efforts to fast-track the process. At his year-end news conference, Obama said the pipeline would benefit Canadian oil companies but would not be a huge benefit to American consumers, who are already seeing low prices at the pump thanks to oil prices, which on Monday dipped to a nearly six-year low and were sharply down again Tuesday.
In addition, the outcome of a Nebraska lawsuit over the route of the pipeline is still outstanding. Another challenge to the pipeline is being waged by a South Dakota tribe over renewal of an application for a permit. That, too, was being heard Tuesday.
The project by Calgary-based TransCanada would move tar sands oil from Canada 1,179 miles south to Gulf Coast refineries. Supporters say it would create jobs and ease American dependence on Middle East oil. A government environmental impact statement also predicted that a pipeline would result in less damage to the climate than moving the same oil by rail.
Critics argue that the drilling itself is environmentally harmful, and said much of the Canadian crude would be exported with little or no impact on America's drive to reduce oil imports, which have already been greatly reduced because of record U.S. oil production.