The Senate narrowly avoided a postelection showdown between the White House and Congress when a bill authorizing construction of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline failed to get the 60 votes needed to pass Tuesday.
Democratic Senate leaders had allowed the vote as a boost for Sen. Mary L. Landrieu (D-La.), who cosponsored the bill and faces an uphill runoff vote in December to retain her seat.
A similar bill sponsored in the House by Landrieu's opponent, Republican Rep. Bill Cassidy, passed easily last week, as have previous House proposals on the pipeline.
With a final tally of 59 in support and 41 against, the bill fell shy of a 60-vote threshold that party leaders had agreed upon for final passage, the number of votes needed to overcome a Senate filibuster.
When Republicans assume control of both houses of Congress in January, they are expected to introduce their own Keystone authorization bill.
The fate of the pipeline is shaping up to be a protracted clash over executive authority between Congress and the White House, a preview of similar actions expected over the next two years.
“The Senate will act again on this important legislation, and I look forward to the new Republican majority taking up and passing the Keystone jobs bill early in the new year,” said Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the presumptive incoming majority leader.
Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.), who cosponsored the bill with Landrieu, predicted that Republicans would “not only get it, we'll get it in a way that gets us beyond a presidential veto.” Overriding a presidential veto requires support by two-thirds of both chambers of Congress.
The White House has long said President Obama will make the final decision on the pipeline, which would carry oil from Canada to the Gulf Coast.
For decades, the executive branch has had the final say on projects that cross U.S. borders and require so-called presidential permits. The administration has put a State Department review of the pipeline on hold pending the results of a lawsuit in Nebraska over its route.
A White House spokesman suggested before the vote that no formal statement of policy on the bill would come — a move that allowed the president to leave his options open, should he choose to use the pipeline as a bargaining chip in future negotiations with Republicans.
"It certainly is a piece of legislation that the president doesn't support, because the president believes that this is something that should be determined through the State Department and a process that is in place to evaluate projects like this," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said.
The $5.3-billion Keystone XL would carry 830,000 barrels of crude oil daily from Alberta, Canada, to Steele City, Neb., where it would connect with a southern leg, already completed, to Texas Gulf Coast refineries.
Obama said he would approve the project only if it did not significantly worsen carbon dioxide pollution that drives global warming. A State Department environmental review concluded that the project would probably have little effect on carbon emissions, but some peer-reviewed research has countered that its estimates are too low.
The administration suspended consideration of Keystone XL in April, after a Nebraska judge invalidated the pipeline's route through the state. The case moved to the state Supreme Court, which is expected to issue a decision by the end of the year. If the court upholds the invalidation of the route, the federal environmental review process, which could take years, might have to begin again.
The Cassidy and Landrieu bills, which were identical, would have circumvented the reviews and directed the federal government to issue a permit to build the pipeline. Republican bills expected in the new Congress are likely to be similar.
Landrieu led Cassidy, 42% to 41%, in the Nov. 4 general election, and Republican tea party candidate Rob Maness got 14% of the vote. The runoff is Dec. 6.
Republicans portrayed the bill’s failure as proof of Landrieu’s inefficacy, an argument they have hammered her with in her reelection campaign.
"Keystone's failure in the Democrat-led Senate is another reminder Mary Landrieu is only effective when it comes to delivering for President Obama and that she enables the gridlock voters rejected at the polls two weeks ago," said Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee.
Hours ahead of the vote, Hoeven and other supporters thought they could get the votes needed to ensure the bill's passage. As the six-hour floor debate unfolded, private talks continued with Democratic senators who leaned toward the project but ultimately voted against it.
As senators streamed in for the evening vote, there appeared to be no more than the already-expected 14 Democratic votes coming, one short of the total Landrieu needed.
Landrieu stood at the front of the chamber and greeted some colleagues. But there was no visible huddling or old-fashioned arm-twisting as the results rolled in.
Many Democrats who backed the pipeline came from conservative states and lost their reelections, including North Carolina Sen. Kay Hagan, who gave Landrieu a hug and was one of the final votes of support.
In the six years the Keystone proposal has been delayed, support for it has gradually eroded among Democrats.
A recent survey by the Pew Research Center showed that 59% of Americans support building Keystone XL, but that’s lower than the 66% who backed the pipeline in March 2013. Republican approval of the pipeline has remained around 83%, but now only 43% of Democrats support it, compared with 54% in 2013, the polls showed.
Environmental groups welcomed the bill's defeat. But one traditional ally of Democrats, a major construction trade union whose members might have benefited from the pipeline project, excoriated them over the bill's defeat.
"Today's failure of the U.S. Senate to authorize the Keystone XL Pipeline is a vote against all construction workers," said Terry O'Sullivan, general president of the Laborers' International Union of North America. "The majority of Democrats in the Senate and the White House just don't get it, even though the recent election results surely should have sunk in by now. They have lost their way, their purpose and their base."