Swift Senate approval of legislation to expedite the Keystone XL pipeline ran into trouble Monday after Democrats temporarily blocked the measure.
In the first notable test of Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell's leadership, key Democratic senators said they were protesting what they viewed as the majority leader's strong-arm tactics in bringing the three-week congressional debate over the pipeline to an end.
These Democrats support the pipeline. Their votes were needed to overcome a filibuster from other Democrats, but several withheld their support Monday to protest McConnell's tactics.
The vote was 53 to 39, shy of the 60-vote threshold needed to advance the measure. Four Democrats supported the legislation, but several others who had supported it as recently as last fall voted no. A subsequent vote also failed by the same margin. The Republican leader switched his vote to no in a procedural move that will allow him bring the bill back for a do-over vote in the days ahead.
The setback may be temporary. The pipeline's chief backers suggested that cooler heads would prevail and that another vote would be attempted after Democrats got the chance to vent their frustrations with the Republican leader.
“This is really disappointing,” McConnell, of Kentucky, said before the vote. “It's about time to bring the Keystone debate to a positive conclusion, and we'll do that soon.”
The episode was an embarrassing setback for the new majority leader, who has made passage of the Keystone bill a top priority of the new Republican-led Congress.
Complicating matters was the absence of key Republican senators, including Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who was making a campaign fundraising swing through California as a potential presidential contender.
The maneuver provides an early example of how the Democrats intend to use their minority status in Congress to force Republicans to the negotiating table or to derail GOP bills.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), chairwoman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, indicated that Democratic objections were no surprise, saying some in the party “wanted to slow-roll the thing all throughout.” She vowed to work across the aisle to reach an agreement with Democrats to vote on more of their amendments before bringing discussion to a close.
“We'll get this thing done in a matter of a couple of short days,” Murkowski said.
Keystone has been the main order of business in the Senate since the new Congress convened Jan. 6. McConnell promised a wide-ranging floor debate as part of his pledge to return to old-fashioned procedures after Democrats ran the chamber with a tighter grip.
But the days dragged into weeks and the list of Democratic amendments on offer continued to grow.
The uproar erupted during a midnight session Thursday when McConnell abruptly shut down the debate, refusing to allow Democrats to speak on their own amendments before the measures were tabled.
Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), the minority whip, called the move “troubling.”
“It didn't leave a very good taste in the mouth of many Democrats,” Durbin said Monday. “There are still major unresolved issues.”
In all, the Senate has processed 24 amendments to the bill, which would accelerate approval of the pipeline that would carry oil from the Canadian tar sands to Nebraska, where it would ultimately connect to pipelines to the Gulf Coast.
Democratic efforts to keep the oil from being exported and to use only U.S.-made steel or other components in pipeline construction were rejected.
Most Democrats contend that building more capacity for the oil industry will continue dependence on fossil fuels and worsen global warming. But supporters say development of the $5.3-billion pipeline will create needed domestic jobs.
Both claims have shortcomings, according to estimates. After construction, the pipeline would have just a few dozen permanent jobs. At the same time, the 830,000 daily barrels of oil flow would not have an immediate substantial effect on global warming, experts say.
McConnell reiterated Monday that the Senate had voted on more amendments in the last month than it had all of last year.
But the Republicans' 54-seat majority requires him to work with Democrats to reach the 60-vote threshold to advance legislation over a Democratic filibuster.
In many ways, the situation is reminiscent of the last eight years of Democratic control, when Republicans' efforts to offer amendments were blocked, resulting in Republican filibusters that killed Democratic bills.
Republican leaders will head back to the negotiating table with Democrats this week in hopes of avoiding that outcome.