Even as Democrats were able to hold the line and beat back a Republican attempt to force through the controversial Keystone Pipeline project, the GOP feels it has hit a potent election-year issue.
Eleven Democrats—many facing re-election in swing states—defected from their party and voted with Republicans in favor of an amendment, offered by Republican North Dakota Sen. John Hoeven, which would have allowed the pipeline project to move forward despite any White House objections. The Senate voted 56-42 in favor of the measure—falling short of the 60 votes needed to pass it as an amendment to the larger highway authorization bill.
The close tally—two Republican senators weren't able to make it to the vote—had Republican staffers blaming the amendment's failure on the personal calls which President Obama reportedly made to lobby senators against the measure.
"He says he wants an all-of-the-above approach. That's fine, but no one fills up with $2.50 of algae per gallon," one Republican aide says. "We're going to keep on this until ground is broken."
The Keystone XL Pipeline project, which has been in the works since 2005, got caught up in congressional politicking last year. Responding to environmental concerns, the administration initially delayed a decision on whether to permit construction until 2013, enraging Republicans who claimed that the project was necessary to boost job growth. The issue quickly became an ideological symbol for both sides, and also became a bargaining chip in negotiations over the payroll tax cut. After Congress passed a provision forcing the administration to make a decision, the White House refused to move forward, although it claimed it would give the project a second look after environmental studies are considered.
Democrats argued that even if the Keystone project were approved—and even if it were up and running—it would only have a negligible effect on gas prices, because the oil would likely be exported to other countries.
"There are those who are saying that this pipeline is necessary, that this is a source of energy for our country," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. "But the fact is that there is no evidence to support that."
After the bill failed, Hoeven said he would seek other ways to see it enacted, including trying to add it to the highway bill later in the legislative process.
With gas prices hitting $4 a gallon in much of the country, Republicans are increasingly focusing on the pain at the pump over unemployment rolls. But Democratic senators scoffed that the issue was simply a distraction.
"When the economy wasn't moving, they tried to use that. They keep looking for different issues," said New York Democrat Sen. Chuck Schumer.
Even though the Keystone pipeline wouldn't have much of an immediate effect on gas prices, political experts say the issue could be linked in the minds of voters.
"What the White House has to fear is that people will be angry at Obama for 'not doing anything' about high prices, and then believe the Republican argument that government can help lower prices with decisive actions such as the pipeline construction—even if environmentalists don't like the solutions," says Larry Sabato, a professor of political science at the University of Virginia.
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