Senate Democrats held together just enough votes on Tuesday to defeat, at least for now, legislation to build the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline.
The bill's failure, by 59 yeas to 41 nays, lets President Obama off the hook for a possible veto at the start of this lame-duck session of Congress. Sixty votes were needed to avoid a filibuster and move the legislation along. The House had passed it last week.
Relieved environmentalists celebrated the brief reprieve. So did the Senate Democrats who are about to relinquish their majority.
"I know the fight is far from over, but I'm proud of my colleagues today," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat who led her party's forces during six hours of feisty debate.
In the end, 14 Democrats broke party ranks. Nine of them will be back next year—or 10, in the unlikely event that Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, leader of the pro-pipeline Democrats, manages to hold on to her seat in a runoff.
Without question, the Keystone project will be back in 2015 to greet the new Congress.
John H. Cushman Jr. wrote the book on Keystone XL. It's called "Keystone and Beyond: Tar Sands and the National Interest in the Era of Climate Change," and you can read it on our free ICN books app. It can also be read in any web browser.
Whatever Landrieu's fate, the recent elections have brought additional allies of fossil fuel industries to both the House and the Senate. If Obama does not approve a presidential permit for the Keystone, he can expect to see another bill to force his hand early next year. It will backed by every Republican in the new House and the Senate, and by many Democrats as well.
Nobody is sure whether Obama would veto that kind of pro-pipeline legislation. But this month's test votes suggest that Obama retains enough loyal Democrats—more than 146 in the House, and more than 34 in the Senate—to sustain a veto on Keystone. It takes a two-thirds vote in both chambers to override a veto.
After the vote, Tom Steyer, a leader of the anti-pipeline movement, described the Keystone as a "legacy-defining issue."
"One's position signifies whether they are standing up for or against the next generation on the issue of climate—and with today's vote, the Senate chose to stand up for the American people," he said.
Actually, only four-tenths of the Senate, plus one, were on Steyer's side this time, and next time he'll have fewer backers. If the fight were really just about one pipeline, the pro-Keystone forces might easily prevail.
But the Senate vote, like the one favoring the project in the House a few days earlier, was really about more than the Keystone.
It was the first defense by besieged Congressional Democrats of President Obama's entire environmental and climate agenda, which they fear may be going down the drain.
While the Senate was debating the Keystone project on Tuesday, the House had turned its attention to a Republican bill overhauling how the Environmental Protection Agency gathers expert scientific advice for its regulatory activities. That is a bill that the White House said Obama would veto, should it ever get to his desk.
Cave to Republicans on Keystone, and Democrats know they will be on the ropes on countless fronts: whether to let wind energy tax credits expire for good; whether to allow exports of crude oil; whether carbon dioxide is even a kind of pollution.
So the real threat to Obama's climate agenda is not that the Keystone will be forced upon him, as significant as that would be. It is that Congress might take far more dramatic action, such as overturning the EPA's proposed clean power rule aimed chiefly at slashing carbon dioxide emissions from coal-burning power plants. Or Congress, with its power over the federal purse, might refuse to pay for other major elements of the Obama administration's climate programs—for example, his new pledge to finance international climate aid to the tune of $3 billion.
In the face of threats like these, Democrats are adopting a defensive crouch that plays to their strengths despite their new minority status.
Not only did they not lose Tuesday, they took advantage of six hours of high-profile debate to paint the ascendant Republicans as anti-environment, anti-planet, anti-kids and anti-science.
Boxer, who probably spent more time talking than any other senator, chose to anchor her opposition to the pipeline not on the question of climate change or on the risks of an oil spill, but on the issue of public health. She talked about asthma, labeling the tar sands crude as "filthy" and decrying the piles of petcoke, byproducts of tar sands refineries, as a threat to Little League ballplayers.
She hammered slogans like "misery follows the pipeline" and declared over and over that "XL" stood for "extremely lethal." "This isn't hyperbole," she deadpanned.
Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat who is retiring, did her one better. He said with emotion that now is the time to abandon fossil fuels altogether. To do otherwise, he said, was to dig the graves for one's own grandchildren. He could not vote for the Keystone or any other fossil fuel project here or anywhere in the world, he said.
Protesters, meanwhile, were staging sit-ins in the offices of pro-pipeline Democratic Sens. Michael Bennet of Colorado and Tom Carper of Delaware, a sign of the escalating tensions around the Keystone.
At one point in the debate, Boxer and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont fell into an amen chorus, a call-and-response show of agreement between two lawmakers who are completely on the same page, though clearly not in the majority.
Here were two senators who have introduced legislation for a tax on carbon, an idea that doesn't even register as a blip these days on the Republican majority's radar. Their back and forth didn't suggest for a moment that ideas like that are gaining momentum. But like others in their camp—Ed Markey of Massachusetts, for example, or Hawaii's Brian Schatz—they put on a display of confidence, or at least of dogged determination.
In Congress, it's not always necessary to muster a majority or to be on the offensive to win the day.