President Obama would veto legislation aimed at forcing him to speed up approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, the White House said Tuesday, setting up a showdown with Congress just hours after Republicans took control.
The promised veto does leave open the possibility that the president could approve the pipeline itself, through an extensive evaluation process already underway that Earnest called "well-established." He argued that the proposed legislation would "undermine" that process, which is led by the State Department and does not involve Congress. Earnest noted that a Nebraska court is still weighing a case challenging the route the pipeline would take.
"The route of that pipeline hasn't been completed. It would be premature to try to evaluate the project before something as basic as the route of the project has been decided," Earnest said.
The company seeking to build the pipeline disputed Earnest's characterization of the process. The State Department review has been anything but orderly and typical. Similar reviews have taken two years, while this one is in its sixth year, said TransCanada President and Chief Executive Russ Girling.
"The bar continues to move again and again," Girling said in a statement that seemed designed to try to extricate the project from the political tug of war underway. "To be clear, this is just a pipeline. Not the first. Not the last – just a safe and reliable pipeline that delivers energy Americans need. It's time to make a decision."
The White House had signaled that the veto threat was coming. Obama has long pegged his delayed decision on the Nebraska case. Meanwhile, Obama has sounded increasingly skeptical about the importance of the pipeline to the U.S. economy. In remarks last month, Obama noted that the jobs created would primarily be temporary construction jobs and suggested that supporters of the pipeline have inflated its economic benefit.
Still, the veto threat indicates that the White House is not going to try to mend its rough relations with GOP lawmakers by making an early concession. On Tuesday, Earnest blamed Republicans for the Day 1 confrontation. The president's opposition to the Keystone bill is a "long-held view," he said.
"Maybe it raises questions about the willingness of Republicans to cooperate with this administration," he said.
Senate Democratic leaders said they backed the president's veto threat. Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), the third-ranking Democrat in the Senate, said Sunday that the pipeline bill wouldn't have enough votes in Congress to override a veto.
Obama's veto threat garnered criticism from both Democratic and Republicans supporters of the pipeline.
Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia and a regular Obama critic, said the president was preventing a deadlocked and unpopular Congress from changing its ways.
"I am disappointed that the president will not allow this Congress to turn over a new leaf and engage in the legislative process to improve an important piece of legislation," Manchin said in a statement. "His decision to veto such a common-sense bill prior to the unfolding of regular congressional order and the offering of amendments appears premature and does little to mitigate the congressional gridlock."
Sen. John Hoeven, a Republican from North Dakota who introduced Keystone legislation Tuesday with Manchin, said he will continue to push for approval of the pipeline, which will run through his state. Hoeven accused Obama of bowing to environmental groups that oppose the project.
"Instead of a veto threat, the president should be joining with Congress on a bipartisan basis to approve the project for the American people, rather than blocking it on behalf of special interest groups," he said.