Keystone XL pipeline teed up as first debate in the new GOP Senate

Keystone pipeline will be first issue in GOP-controlled Senate, setting up a confrontation with White House

Votes to approve the controversial Keystone XL pipeline will be the first of the new GOP-controlled Senate, the incoming majority leader promised Tuesday, as Republicans sought to move past internal divisions and confront President Obama.

Incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell made the pledge on Keystone as Congress wraps up the final days of its lame duck session. Republicans are set to take control of the Senate in January, and broaden their ranks in the House.

"We'll be starting the New Year with a job-creating bill that enjoys significant bipartisan support," McConnell said.

Passage of Keystone would pose a direct challenge to Obama, who has delayed approval of the project in the face of deep opposition from environmentalists.

Despite the president's slow-walking of Keystone, many Democrats in Congress support the pipeline project. The House is also expected to vote on the project early in the new session.

Republicans promote the $5.3 billion project as a job-creator that will help the nation become energy independent. But critics say the number of permanent jobs will be few, and most of the oil will be shipped abroad.

The pipeline would cut through the Midwest, carrying crude oil from tar sands in Alberta, Canada to Nebraska, where it would then link to another pipeline to the Texas Gulf Coast.

More recently, experts have questioned whether Keystone will pencil out, due to the falling price of crude and the expense of extracting the oil from the Canadian tar sands.

Republicans take over the Senate on Jan. 6.

McConnell (R-Ky.), who has said he plans to run the Senate differently than did outgoing Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), also promised a robust and open amendment process on the bill. Reid was often criticized for blocking amendments.

Opening the bill to amendments could result in days, if not weeks of debate on the Senate floor.

McConnell was hopeful the bill would be passed "early in the session."

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