In face of veto threat, Senate panel advances pipeline bill

Pipe is stacked at the southern site of the Keystone XL pipeline in Cushing, Oklahoma.
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Pipe is stacked at the southern site of the Keystone XL pipeline in Cushing, Oklahoma.

A bill to approve the Keystone XL oil pipeline cleared a key Senate committee Thursday, setting up a fight next week pitting newly empowered Republicans against President Barack Obama and Senate Democrats.

The Energy and Natural Resources committee moved the bill closer to the floor by a 13-9 vote. Sen Joe Manchin of West Virginia, one of six Democrats sponsoring the bill, was the only Democrat to support it in committee. The House will vote on its version of the bill Friday, and is expected to pass it easily.

The moves assures that the first piece of legislation in the Republican-controlled Senate is on a collision course with the White House, and neither side appeared to be giving any ground Thursday.

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New energy committee chairman Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican, urged colleagues not to be deterred by the veto threat, reminding them the bill fell just one vote shy of passing the Senate when Democrats controlled the chamber last year.

The bill this time around already has enough support to overcome a filibuster—54 Republicans and six Democrats are sponsors. But supporters acknowledge they are still short of what would be needed to overcome a veto threat, and were already discussing other means to get the pipeline approved.

Prior to the committee's vote, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called on Obama to rescind his veto threat.

"So for a president who has said he'd like to see more bipartisan cooperation, this is a perfect opportunity," McConnell said in a statement.

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While the $5.4 billion project has become a political lightning rod, it will have minimal impact on the two issues that the two sides care most about, which for Republicans is jobs and for liberal Democrats, their concern about worsening climate change. The State Department in its evaluation of the pipeline, now on hold until a Nebraska court rules on the pipeline's route, said the tar sands would be developed regardless of whether the pipeline were built.

The same review said that during the two-year construction period, about 42,000 jobs would be created, but only 3,900 would be directly related to the pipeline that would carry oil from tar sands in Canada to the Gulf Coast, where it would be refined.

Democrats held off on introducing most amendments Thursday, saving them for the Senate floor.

But in comments that gave a hint of the debate to come, Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent, offered an amendment that would put the entire Senate on record as recognizing that global warming is a threat and that the United States needed to transition as fast as possible away from fossil fuels. It was tabled.

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