Four politically vulnerable Senate Democrats are pressing President Barack Obama to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, spotlighting the implications of an election-year decision that could influence which party controls the chamber.
At a rally Tuesday in a Senate office building, Sens. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Mark Pryor of Arkansas joined Republicans, the Canadian ambassador, oil-industry lobbyists and labor leaders to call for the administration to sign off on the $5.4 billion Canada-U.S. oil pipeline. Two other Senate Democrats who face tough November re-elections — Mark Begich of Alaska and Kay Hagan of North Carolina -- who weren’t at the rally also have voiced strong support for the pipeline.
"The president in a bit of a squeeze on this," said Stu Rothenberg, editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report. A decision against the pipeline will give Republicans facing off against the four Democrats a "green light" to attack over a project that's popular with voters and industries back home, he said.
TransCanada Corp. of Calgary wants to build the pipeline to carry oil sands crude from Alberta to refineries in Texas and Louisiana. The State Department last week released an environmental assessment that said Keystone isn’t as significant a threat to climate change as its opponents say.
Landrieu and Pryor touted their leadership in pressing for the pipeline's approval today before television cameras that could beam their words back home to Republican-leaning states where the pipeline is popular.
"This pipeline is essential, the time to study is over, the time for action is now," Landrieu said.
The report released Jan. 31 boosts the possibility that the pipeline wins U.S. approval, perhaps as soon as July, according to analysts including Kevin Book, managing director at ClearView Energy Partners in Washington. The study's chief conclusion: That Alberta’s oil sands will be mined and refined regardless of the project, contrary to opponents' claims that blocking it would keep the carbon-heavy crude in the ground.
TransCanada applied more than five years ago for a permit to build the pipeline across six states in the U.S. heartland. The 875-mile segment reviewed by the State Department would run from the U.S.-Canada border to Steele City, Neb., before connecting to an existing pipeline network.
Obama faces several political difficulties as he considers his decision. It forces him to choose between labor-union supporters who back the project and environmentalists who oppose it, both groups who may be key for Democrats in the November elections. Republicans seek to pick up six seats to wrest control of the Senate.
The four Democratic pipeline supporters hold positions at odds with most other senators in their party. They’re key to helping Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's strategy of keeping control of the Senate, said Rothenberg. He says Pryor's seat is tilting toward his Republican opponent, while Landrieu, Hagan and Begich are in races considered "toss-ups."
"They are the ground zero in the fight for control of the U.S. Senate," he said.
What’s more, he said, a rejection of the pipeline could be used against Democratic contenders in states with open Senate seats — Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia.
Three of the four incumbents count on the oil and gas industry as a top source of campaign donations.
Landrieu, whose state is home to refineries that want to process the Canadian crude, got the most with $456,300 in donations by mid-December from industry political action committees and individual donors tied to oil and gas companies. Begich raised $279,700 from the industry, while Pryor raised $166,700.
Landrieu and Republican Sen. John Hoeven of North Dakota said today that they are weighing legislation that would set a timeline for the president to make his decision.
She told reporters she's been speaking to Obama about the project for months.
"I've explained it to the president before, and I'll explain it again," she said.
Pryor said his support and that of other Democrats should weigh on the president as he considers the project.
"There’s a pretty decent number of Democrats in the Senate who are for this and want to see this get resolved," he said.
Their efforts matched the calls of Republican leaders in both chambers, who yesterday renewed their push for Obama to back the project.
"The State Department once again confirmed that there is no reason, scientific or otherwise, for delaying the Keystone pipeline one more day," House Speaker John Boehner told reporters. "Mr. President, it’s time to act."
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