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Republican Senate could force Obama’s hand on Keystone

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at Frank G. Bonelli Regional Park in San Dimas, Calif., on Oct. 10, 2014.

EVAN VUCCI/ASSOCIATED PRESS

President Barack Obama may have again punted a Keystone XL decision – this time until after next month's mid-term elections when Republicans hope to seize control of the Senate – but that doesn't mean the controversial TransCanada project has disappeared from the political fray.

Far from it.

Albertans and other Canadians interested in the outcome of the long-running American political drama that is the Keystone XL project will be watching the election outcome closely. It could decide the fate of the project.

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Attack ads in key states cite Keystone as evidence for, or against, whether voters should back a candidate. The pipeline – intended to funnel upwards of one million barrels a day of Alberta oil sands crude to Gulf refineries in Louisiana and Texas – became a proxy for the far-larger battle over climate change and greenhouse-gas emission cuts, jobs and energy security.

Keystone XL may not determine the outcome of the mid-term elections, to be held Nov. 4, but that outcome may have a dramatic impact on how the Keystone XL decision plays out.

And pundits are already speculating whether the next Congress will have sufficient pipeline backers to attempt to force a decision on Mr. Obama.

Meanwhile, desperate Democratic Senate incumbents, fighting for their political lives in several key states that could determine whether the President's party hangs on to the Senate, are running as fast as they can to distance themselves from him.

Often that distance can be measured in the separation on Keystone XL.

"I disagree with Obama," said Senator Mark Pryor of Arkansas, one of the most threatened Democrats incumbents. He pointed to his ardent support of Keystone XL as one of the defining differences.

In North Carolina, another endangered Democrat, Senator Kay Hagan, said: "I disagree with the President, I think we need to build the Keystone pipeline."

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In Louisiana, Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu told voters she's been "supporting the Keystone pipeline, [and] using my influence and my clout, which is really the people's influence and the people's clout in Louisiana."

But her opponents point out that she's failed to get Keystone out of the energy committee, which she chairs, and on to the Senate floor for an up-or-down vote.

And Republicans know that if their party can take six seats and win control of the Senate, Alaska's Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski – just as powerful a Keystone XL supporter – would replace Ms. Landrieu as chair of the energy committee.

Keystone XL crops up in all sorts of races. In tightly-fought Kansas, where independent Greg Orman threatens to upset Republican incumbent Pat Roberts, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is airing a new ad denouncing the challenger on two counts. "Greg Orman doesn't want you to know how liberal he really is," says the ad. "He's with the Obama administration on protecting the train wreck known as Obamacare; he's silent on the Keystone pipeline."

Silence on a pipeline has become a measure of being too liberal.

Even in places like Georgia, far from the pipeline's route, the controversial project is used by candidates to position themselves. "Too many Democrats play politics by dragging their feet on the Keystone pipeline," said Michelle Nunn, the Democratic nominee who currently holds a narrow lead in that could stymie Republican hopes of controlling the Senate.

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In Kentucky, where Alison Grimes has a longshot hope of unseating Republican Mitch McConnell, the Senate Minority Leader, she has been publicly backing Keystone XL since last spring. "The administration should rule now and approve the project," she says.

In Colorado, attack ads pound away at Democratic incumbent Senator Mark Udall, accusing him of waffling on Keystone XL and fracking and being beholden to the California billionaire and environmental activist Tom Steyer.

Republicans are already publicly musing about post-election strategies if Democrats lose control of the Senate.

At a recent panel sponsored by the Canada Institute at the Wilson Center for International Scholars, a Washington think tank, a Republican staffer for the House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce laid out several scenarios for new legislation to force Mr. Obama's hand on Keystone XL.

Should Republicans control the Senate – and thus both houses of Congress – after the mid-terms, a new bill could quickly be readied on Keystone XL.

"The goal of the statute would be to get the pipeline built – or at least under way – fairly soon," Ben Lieberman said.

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Republican control of Congress could "ring in new strategies," he added, suggesting a "Keystone bill be attached to some sort of 'must pass" spending bill."

Mr. Obama would face hard choices if confronted with such a bill.

Paul Koring reports from The Globe's Washington bureau.

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