WASHINGTON – Republicans in the House of Representatives pushed through a bill on Wednesday that would force federal approval of the Keystone XL pipeline without further review. The vote was 241 to 175.
The legislation is the latest of several attempts by Congress to force the Obama administration's hand. It is unlikely to be taken up in the Senate and the White House has threatened a veto.
If anything, the bill's backers may have lost ground this time, and ended up with a much more partisan divide. Only 19 Democrats voted for the pipeline on Wednesday, compared to 69 in a vote last year.
What happened? The most persuasive theory is that the Republicans over-reached by waiving several environmental laws and choking off potential court challenges to the pipeline project.
That seemed to be the objection of Rep. Nick Rahall of West Virginia, a Democrat who voted against the bill.
"Last Congress I voted for every piece of pro-Keystone pipeline legislation that was brought before this House," he said. "But something happened along the way, between then and now. The right wing hijacked the bill."
"They overplayed their hand, as they always have in the past," said Sherwood Boehlert, a retired New York congressman who once led a faction of moderate, pro-environment Republicans in the House.
Another theory is that grassroots opponents have begun to sway the Democrats about the pipeline's merits and risks. Although that would be extraordinary, it's not entirely implausible.
Anna Aurelio, director of the Washington office of Environment America, a federation of state-based advocacy groups, said that that her group had tried hard to educate new members of Congress about the Keystone. Freshmen Democrats in the House voted overwhelmingly against the pipeline.
The Republicans argued, as they have before, that the Keystone would create tens of thousands of jobs, drive down gasoline prices, and cement in place a secure source of oil, from the bounteous Canadian tar sands. (One Republican who was given only 30 seconds to speak during Wednesday's lively debate on the floor managed to make all those points before sitting down.)
The Democrats countered that only a few thousand jobs would be created by constructing the pipeline and that they'd last only about 20 weeks each summer. They also argued that economists, oil industry officials, and government studies have concluded that the Keystone's crude oil would have no perceptible effect on gas prices except, perhaps, to raise them by ending discounts caused by bottlenecks. In any case, they said, much of the oil carried by the pipeline would be exported in the form of refined products, doing nothing for American consumers or the national interest.
Two of the fine-print arguments raised by the pipeline's opponents also may have struck a nerve. One was that Canadian producers of the diluted bitumen, or dilbit, that the Keystone would carry aren't subjected to the tax on crude oil that helps finance cleanup costs when oil spills occur. Dilbit can be extraordinarily expensive to clean up. In addition, Democrats pointed out that the refineries that would handle the Canadian crude are located in free trade zones and could export the products tax-free.
Besides the substantive arguments, what else might have changed the minds of so many Democrats?
Perhaps it was the persistent and growing protests of the controversial pipeline.
"It's finally occurring to official Washington that Keystone is the Number One priority for the environmental movement, and we are beginning to see just who is willing to fight for the climate," Bill McKibben of 350.org, the environmental group that has been leading the protests, told Reuters.
Or perhaps the Democrats rallied, in this moment, to the flag of their politically wounded leader?
President Obama's personal power is increasingly being questioned, starting with the defeat of gun control legislation, and now with challenges to his administration on Benghazi, tax enforcement, and press freedoms.
"This bill is about seizing power from the President of the United States," said Rep. Bobby Rush, a Chicago Democrat, said Wednesday in the debate leading up to the vote.
Boehlert, a former chairman of the House Science Committee who in retirement continues to work on environmental causes, commented: "The Republicans have made up their minds that the only way to recapture the White House is to tear down Obama and everything he stands for, everything."
So which of these forces was really at work when the final roll was called?
To borrow a phrase from the running debate over energy and the environment, probably "all of the above."
But the most telling explanations of what happened to draw so many Democrats away from their support of the Keystone on this vote came from the fence sitters themselves.
Several said the Republicans had gone overboard on this bill, which not only bypassed presidential approval of the project, but turned the pipeline into a fait accompli by waiving established precedent and basic environmental laws—all on behalf of a foreign company that, the Democrats charged, would also get off scot-free in the event of a spill.
Rep. Dan Lipinski, an Illinois Democrat who voted for the Keystone last year, said that if the most egregious provisions were removed "we can really come together in a strong bipartisan manner to approve the pipeline."
The Democratic dynamic against the bill became most vivid when West Virginia's Rahall, who is in his 19th term and supports the pipeline, came to the floor and denounced the legislative in unusually vehement terms.
"What right do the promoters of this bill have to jeopardize this pipeline with such a frivolous proposal?" he demanded. "And that is what you are doing with this legislation. This is a bumper sticker bill. Ideology driven. Born of fancy, not fact. Jobs hang in the balance. An important supply of energy held hostage. This bill is a mockery. It boils down to this: right-wing politics trumping what is right, what is correct, and what is just for this pipeline to proceed through the permitting process. To be built. To put people to work.
"So let's get serious," he continued. "Let's dispense with the Kindergarten tactics. Too much is on the line here. While the promoters of this bill play politics, I can assure them that this is no laughing matter in the heartland of America."
But time and again, Republicans argued that the Democratic amendments to the bill would essentially render it toothless.
Republicans who are passionately committed to cutting red tape and meddlesome government spoke angrily about the years of delay that the Keystone has faced.
Rep. Pete Olson of Texas, a Republican, said it would be possible to walk the entire length of the pipeline 53 times in less time than the State Department has had to review TransCanada's application. "At least walking would be some sort of action," he said.
In the end, it was the bill's regulatory end-run that seemed to cost the Republicans the votes they needed to characterize the bill as a truly bipartisan consensus on the Keystone.
Just as had happened in three committees that had considered the bill over the past few months, Democratic amendments were rejected on party line votes, each time after just 10 minutes of debate.
As the debate wore on, however, the Democrats almost seemed satisfied to absorb the punishment. It gave them the chance to portray the majority party as ham-handed and intransigent. And although the Republicans won the day, it might have been a hollow victory.