Republicans scored a victory on Saturday, when the Senate passed a payroll tax extension deal that included a provision that would force President Obama to make a decision on the Keystone XL pipeline construction within 60 days. The choice puts Obama in a tricky political predicament, as labor unions and environmentalists are bitterly divided over the Keystone issue:
If Republicans get their way, President Barack Obama, right around Valentine’s Day, could have to weigh in for the second time in about three months on permitting the Keystone XL pipeline that divides his environmental and labor bases.…
For a White House sensitive to economic concerns, it’s not exactly an ideal scenario as it shifts into reelection mode. Hence the calculation last week from House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to elevate the profile of the seemingly parochial energy issue, which months ago was mired among a laundry list of Republican grievances with the Obama administration.
Obama previously threatened to veto any bill that included the Keystone XL provision, but on Sunday his administration seemed to back away from that position. He really has no choice – vetoing a payroll tax cut extension bill that received broad support in both the House and Senate would be politically suicidal.
It’s unclear which side Obama will take on Keystone XL, but we can assume he’s leaning against its construction. Just last month, the administration announced that the State Department needed an additional two years to assess alternative routes for the pipeline. There is no way this research could be completed in just two months. Unless Obama is prepared to backtrack and say that the assessment is no longer necessary, his hands are tied.
Democrats are probably aware of this, which is why they’ve started preemptively blaming Republicans for “killing” the pipeline:
But the two-month deadline “would make it almost certainly impossible” that the project will get the green light, added [White House economic adviser Gene] Sperling, joining the chorus of Senate Democrats who have made similar assertions.
“They’ve just killed the Keystone pipeline. They killed it because they forced the president to make a decision before he can make it so he’s not going to move forward with it,” Sen. Barbara Boxer, an ally of environmental groups, said Friday.
Of course, it was Obama who created this mess to begin with by letting campaign politics interfere with his decision on the pipeline. His administration took three years to review the Keystone XL, and ruled over the summer that it was environmentally sound. It was widely expected that the State Department would approve construction this fall, and the delay was a big surprise. Now Obama is stuck defending an extended review process that everyone knows is unnecessary. The right move would be to scrap the two-year assessment and greenlight the pipeline immediately – but, unfortunately, campaign politics will likely trump common sense in this case.