Senate Approves Keystone XL Bill; White House Reaffirms Veto Threat

Senate Approves Keystone XL Bill; White House Reaffirms Veto Threat

WASHINGTON -- The Senate voted Thursday afternoon to approve a bill authorizing construction of the Keystone XL pipeline over the presidential approval process, capping off weeks of debate over amendments.

Following the vote, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) praised the passage, calling it a victory "for jobs in this country, for energy security, for good trade relationships with our neighbor in Canada."

"For all the right reasons, it was important that we pass this legislation in front of us here today," said Murkowski.

The bill passed by a vote of 62 to 36, with all Republicans and nine Democrats voting in favor. The House approved similar legislation earlier this month. It's unclear at this point whether the two chambers will need to conference on a bill, or whether the House will pass the Senate bill as amended.

But the bill is destined for a veto either way, as the White House has said President Barack Obama will not sign it into law. Press Secretary Josh Earnest reiterated that veto threat in a press conference Thursday afternoon. So while Thursday marked the end of a sprint on Keystone in the Senate, it’s not likely a conclusion to the marathon debates over the controversial pipeline. The vote indicates there are not enough supporters in the Senate to override a presidential veto at this time.

Because the pipeline crosses an international border, the permitting decision is supposed to lie with the executive branch. But the decision-making process has been beset with delays, prompting congressional Republicans and some Democrats to force approval for the pipeline legislatively.

The White House has given other federal agencies until Feb. 2 to submit their comments on the pipeline. After those are reviewed, the Obama administration is expected to issue its decision.

The Senate has voted on 41 amendments over the last two weeks, but only a handful won enough votes for passage. The Senate approved a measure from John Cornyn (R-Texas) affirming constitutional protections for landowners against the use of eminent domain. It also approved a measure from Murkowski putting the Senate on record stating that the oil industry should have to pay the same per-barrel tax into the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund for bitumen, a type of crude oil from the tar sands, as it pays for other types of oil. Bitumen is currently excluded from that tax.

Also attached to the legislation were amendments acknowledging that climate change is “real and not a hoax”; approving a scaled-back version of bipartisan energy efficiency legislation; and promoting energy efficiency retrofits for schools.

Democratic leaders were critical of the majority for making Keystone the first order of business this Congress, and for rejecting Democratic amendments that would have required the oil to stay in the United States and the pipeline to be constructed of American-made steel. In a press conference Thursday, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) described the pipeline as a “giant straw that goes from Canada across the United States to Port Arthur, Texas, and sucks out” the oil.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) described the bill as a “special hug and special kiss to a foreign oil company,” one that she argued was unprecedented in the history of the Senate.

"The fact is, Keystone would create only 35 permanent jobs -- a drop in the bucket," said Schumer. "A fried chicken franchise creates about as many jobs."

Nine Democrats joined Republicans in approving the bill: Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Bob Casey (D-Pa.), Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.), Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), Jon Tester (D-Mont.), Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Tom Carper (D-Del.).

But Schumer said he was "pretty pleased with how our caucus held together" to keep the amendment process going on the bill, after Republican leaders moved to close off debate on Monday evening.

Russ Girling, the CEO of TransCanada -- the company seeking to build the pipeline -- said in a statement Thursday afternoon that he was “encouraged by the strong bipartisan support for Keystone XL” in the Senate. “It’s time to approve Keystone XL so we can transport Canadian and American oil to fuel the everyday lives of the American people. We look forward to a decision by the U.S. Administration to approve the construction of Keystone XL."

This story has been updated to include Girling's comments.

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