POLITICS
01/08/2015 03:20 pm ET Updated Jan 08, 2015

Senate Committee Clears Path To Floor For Keystone XL Vote

WASHINGTON -- The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee advanced legislation to approve the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline without amendments on Thursday, putting off most debate on the controversial pipeline until a floor vote next week.

The committee passed the bill as-written by a 13-9 vote, with bill co-author Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) the only Democrat to join Republicans in voting "yes."

The White House has already said that President Barack Obama will veto the bill. The bill's Senate sponsors expect to get 63 votes -- enough to pass the legislation, but not enough to override a presidential veto.

"The country, but also the world, is watching the United States to see if we are ready to lead as a global energy super power," said Energy and Natural Resources Chair Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) in remarks at the opening of the meeting, her first as chair. "There is a veto threat out there, but I don't think that threat should deter us as a committee or as a Congress."

Senators discussed several amendments they intend to offer to the bill, but only Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) offered one formally -- a measure that would put Congress on record as affirming that "climate change is real" and is "caused by human activities."

Manchin, a coal state Democrat, proposed an amendment to the part of Sanders' amendment that calls it "imperative that the United States transform its energy system away from fossil fuels and toward energy efficiency and sustainable energy." Manchin's alternative text stated instead that the U.S. should "invest in research and development for clean fossil technology."

But the committee voted to table all discussion of amendments until the floor debate of the bill, which is expected next week. Democrats had objected to an effort from the new Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to speed debate on the bill. But the bill did get a committee markup -- even if it wasn't one where substantive changes were made to the legislation.

Republican leadership has promised a full debate of all amendments on the floor.

"Despite an effort at misinformation, the bipartisan Keystone XL infrastructure bill is proceeding through the regular order," said Don Stewart, a spokesman for McConnell, in an email.

"Now that the committee has reported the bill on a bipartisan vote, the full Senate will now have an opportunity to debate and vote on amendments -- a process that the Democrats’ minority whip welcomed this morning as a change to the previous leadership of the Senate," Stewart went on.

He was referring to a statement from Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) on the floor Thursday morning.

"This bill, of course, is going to be subject to the new approach of the new majority amendment on the floor. I welcome that. I've been looking forward to that and the return to that for a long time," Durbin said during that statement.

"I will tell you that when this measure comes to the floor," he went on, "there are some important questions that need to be answered."

During Thursday's meeting, other senators mentioned measures they plan to offer on the floor. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) said he will offer an amendment consisting of a scaled-back energy efficiency measure that he introduced as a bill last year. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said he plans to introduce an amendment that would require the pipeline to be built with American-made steel. Other amendments that have been discussed include a measure that would require the oil transported through the pipeline to stay in the United States rather than be exported abroad, and a measure that would bar TransCanada from using eminent domain to access land in the proposed pipeline route.

"We'll have this debate on the floor. People will have an opportunity to bring forth amendments," said bill co-sponsor John Hoeven (R-N.D.) during Thursday's meeting. "If they get 60 votes, they'll get included."

Most of the meeting, however, was taken up by senators' statements for or against the pipeline. Several committee Democrats protested the Keystone bill, arguing that it bypasses the administration's decision-making authority on the pipeline. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), the new ranking member of the committee, argued that the bill would "prematurely intervene in the pipeline process."

"My message to the TransCanada Corporation is to play by the rules," said Cantwell. "Why the hurry?"

But Republicans contended that it's already been too long since the project was first proposed.

"It's gone through the process for six years. For six years!" Hoeven said Thursday. "And it's still not through the process. Americans won World War II in a shorter amount of time."

The House is expected to vote on its measure to approve the pipeline on Friday.

The White House, meanwhile, has deferred a final decision on the project until the Nebraska state Supreme Court rules on the validity of the pipeline's proposed route through the state. That decision could come as early as Friday.

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