If President Obama wants to approve the Keystone XL pipeline as a way of extending an olive branch to congressional Republicans, they are likely to see it as one riddled with thorns.
Democrats and Republicans alike increasingly think that Obama will approve the 1,700-mile, Alberta-to-Texas pipeline sometime this year. But after years of delay, bitter messaging wars, and even one outright rejection of the project, Republicans would welcome Obama’s approval of the pipeline with subdued optimism that probably wouldn’t create much long-lasting bipartisan goodwill for solving the big fiscal issues dividing Washington.
“It would be one step,” Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said in an interview Friday. “It could help in terms of him showing concrete actions that he’s taking, and it’s going to take concrete actions on his part to get a grand bargain with Republicans.” Hoeven, who was one of a dozen Republican senators Obama invited to dinner a couple of weeks ago, added, “I think he’s going to have to do more. I think he’s going to have to lay things out on entitlement reform.”
The years-long debate over the politically beleaguered pipeline resumed last week, when congressional Republicans pressed Obama on the issue in two separate meetings on Capitol Hill. According to lawmakers in the meetings and aides familiar with what was said, Obama didn’t show his hand; he instead carefully articulated both sides of the argument and concluded that both were exaggerated.
That leaves the substantive debate over the pipeline in about the same spot as it was before the meetings, but the politics have shifted. Republicans are slightly more optimistic that if Obama were to approve the pipeline, it could break some of the stalemate that’s plagued Washington the last few years.
“This would be one step toward the president showing that he is willing to work with us to get things done,” Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., said in an interview with National Journal on Friday.
Scalise and other House Republicans maintain that the debate over the pipeline is wholly separate from the spending standoff. “I think it’s a totally separate issue and in no way impacts other issues,” said Rep. Lee Terry, R-Neb., whose state has been at the center of the pipeline controversy. “It’s hard to blend over Keystone into tax or Medicare reform or cutting spending. And some of those big, iconic issues are really the reason behind us not being able to get along.”
One potential thorn on the olive branch would be the conventional wisdom emerging that if Obama does approve the pipeline project, it would come with a quid pro quo that Republicans wouldn’t like.
“I’m more inclined to say he’s going to support it, but I’m also convinced that there is going to have to be some sort of consolation prize for the environmental community,” said a former senior House Republican aide who would speak only on the condition of anonymity.
Democratic strategists familiar with the administration’s position on the project agree that Obama would likely pair approval of the pipeline with some significant action on climate change and clean energy.
If this theory is correct, one part of the “consolation prize” came on Friday. According to Bloomberg News, the Obama administration could require all major federal agencies to consider the impact of global warming before approving major infrastructure projects, such as pipelines.
According to a draft environmental assessment by the State Department, which is responsible for reviewing international projects like Keystone, the pipeline would not result in a net increase of greenhouse-gas emissions. Translation: It would pass a tough review process that includes global-warming impacts. Other projects could be delayed, however, giving Republicans another gripe.
“If the president was serious about getting the economy moving, he wouldn’t do something good and then do something bad at the same time,” Scalise said. “That would show us he was not serious about working with us.”
GOP grumbling aside, incorporating climate change into the regulatory review process could provide a bit of solace to environmental groups worrying that Obama will approve Keystone.
In Republicans’ eyes, another thorn is the expected lawsuits that environmental groups would immediately file if Obama approves the project. Republicans worry that without limitations on these challenges, such suits could delay the pipeline indefinitely. Terry has introduced legislation to limit lawsuits over the pipeline, and Hoeven has sponsored a bill that would streamline the litigation process.
“If Obama does continue to delay or put contingences on it that are problematic,” Hoeven said, “that strengthens our hand to approve it congressionally.”
This article appears in the March 18, 2013, edition of National Journal Daily as Keystone Pipeline Olive Branch May Be a Prickly One.