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Is This the Keystone XL Pipeline's Final Showdown?

Nicholas Kamm/ AFP, Getty Images

Senate Democrats on Tuesday will hold a vote to force President Barack Obama’s hand on the Keystone XL, the controversial pipeline that would carry crude oil from the Canadian tar sands.

This move has baffled environmental activists, who have spent six years campaigning against the pipeline and sunk $85 million into defending Senate control. It’s also baffled Mother Jones’ Kevin Drum, who called it “crazy,” and the American Prospect’s Paul Waldman, who described it as a “politically idiotic” move. (My choice of phrase was “insanely dumb.”)

Senate Democrats are holding this vote now in part to boost Senator Mary Landrieu’s prospects in her December runoff, which she’s likely to lose. They are also holding it because they know, with certainty, that Republicans will make this their first priority when they take over the Senate in January. As my colleague Brian Beutler points out, soon-Minority Leader Harry Reid doesn’t want to be the same obstructive party Republicans have been throughout Obama’s presidency. This could be the opening move in the strategy.

Democrats now intend to take this vote away from them. By Politico’s latest count, 58 Senators support the bill, following Senator Tom Carper’s decision to change his vote. The House of Representatives is rushing its own version of the bill.

No one knows for sure what Obama would do, but the signs point to his vetoing the bill. “The administration, as you know, has taken a dim view of these kind of legislative proposals in the past,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Wednesday. “I think it’s fair to say that our dim view of these kinds of proposals has not changed.” Of course, Obama could either sign the legislation or leave it unsigned, which has the same effect of making it law.

If Obama does veto, then the question is whether the Senate has enough votes to override this veto. Because the Senate doesn’t turn over until January, they probably won't have the 67 votes needed to override it, yet. They might with the Republican majority, though.

All this makes the Keystone drama’s final act, years in the making, look like a lost cause for activists. But they have one last chance to block the project. The pipeline would go through Nebraska and there’s a legal dispute over whether the governor or a state agency has authority to approve it. The Nebraska Supreme Court has heard the case and if the court rejects the route, then TransCanada, the company building the pipeline, would have to push back its timeline while it develops a new route. The longer the delay, the more expensive, and less financially viable it becomes. CNBC yesterday even noted that oil prices may be getting too low to make the project profitable.

Meanwhile, the arguments for the pipeline continue to be weak. Proponents tout the number of jobs it would create (not many) and the oil it would bring (which doesn't lower gas prices). Danny Vinik has pointed out that Keystone is more a gift to big business than to average Americans. And it may very well be one of the only substantive pieces of legislation that Congress passes this year.

Rebecca Leber

News from Thursday:

IMMIGRATION: Michael D. Shear, Julia Preston and Ashley Parker reported that President Obama is planning to issue an executive order to protect up to 5 million illegal immigrants from deportation. (New York Times)

COAL: Four years ago, an explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine owned by Massey Energy killed 29 people. Yesterday, its former CEO, Don Blankenship, was indicted by a federal grand jury for knowingly violating safety regulations before the explosion. (Ken Ward, Charleston Gazette)

ELIZABETH WARREN: Harry Reid created a special leadership role for her, giving the progressive icon a chance to help shape the Senate Democrats' agenda (Amanda Terkel and Ryan Grim, Huffington Post) 

OBAMACARE: Open enrollment for 2015 begins on Saturday. To get the best deal—and avoid sticker shock—consumers should make sure to shop around, and check how much financial aid they can get. (Mary Agnes Carey, NPR and Kaiser Health News)

Articles worth reading

May the Force Be With You: Ezra Klein says the historical theory undergirding the latest legal challenge to Obamacare “is less a serious theory about Obamacare than an attempt to pull off a Jedi mind trick. (Vox)

Remember Solyndra? The Department of Energy's clean energy loan program, so maligned by critics because of Solyndra, turned a $5 to $6 billion profit for taxpayers. (Jeff Spross, ThinkProgress)

Take this to the bank: The Department of Education is starting a pilot program to take some student loan accounts away from private collection agencies and move them in-house. If it works, it could save money and cut down on violations of consumer protection laws. (Shahien Nasiripour and Ryan Grim, Huffington Post)

Bad news for news: George Packer explains why free press is endangered—and why journalists in particular are in danger. (The New Yorker) 

What we’re watching

More news about what the Administration is planning on immigration, and how the first days of Obamacare open enrollment go.


If Harry Reid tweets and Brian Beutler doesn’t analyze it, did the senator really tweet? Alec MacGillis reads a Wall Street Journal article about Obamacare and notices one very important phrase missing. Danny Vinik explains how Congress relies on the “stupidity of the American Voter” and yes, your party is doing it, too.