The showdown between U.S. President Barack Obama and the Republican-dominated Congress over the controversial Keystone XL edged closer Monday in a test vote as the Senate cleared the 60-vote threshold needed to proceed with legislation approving the pipeline that would send Canadian oil sands crude across the United States.
The 63-32 cloture vote set the stage for passage of Keystone XL legislation later this week.
Mr. Obama has vowed to veto efforts by Republicans to wrest control away from him on the long-delayed decision about the $8-billion project that environmentalists claim will spur development of some of the planet's filthiest fossil fuels.
Significantly, the vote was short of the crucial 67 – or two-thirds majority – needed in the 100-seat Senate to override a presidential veto.
Keystone XL final approval remains far from certain, despite the new Republican majority in the Senate giving the party control of both Houses of Congress.
Proponents say the controversial pipeline that will send 830,000 barrels a day of Canadian heavy crude to the Texas Gulf coast will displace imports from Venezuela and the Middle East. Opponents argue Keystone XL will worsen global warming by unlocking Alberta's vast reserves of carbon-heavy crude.
The full Senate is expected to vote, after considering amendments, on the Keystone XL bill on Friday. It has already passed the House of Representatives – for the 10th time – and could be on Mr. Obama's desk before the end of the month.
Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican who is now majority leader in the Senate, said the President has run out of excuses for further delay.
"Nebraska's Supreme Court has ruled on what has to be the last conceivable pretext to veto" pro-Keystone XL legislation, he said.
Nebraska Supreme Court vacated a lower court decision that the route approval flouted state law. But landowners and others challenging the process in Nebraska may still have legal recourse. All four of the seven Nebraska Supreme Court judges who ruled on the issue said the state route approval process was unconstitutional. But because a super-majority of five is needed on constitutional issues, the lower court ruling was overturned.
That leaves open the door to a new court challenge – perhaps should energy company TransCanada Corp. attempt to use eminent domain to force recalcitrant landowners to sell their property. "This decision has simply pushed down the road or punted away to be answered on another day," Brian Jorde, one of the lawyers representing the opposed landowners said Monday. "It's up to TransCanada to make the next move," he added.
The White House, which used the uncertainty over whether the Keystone XL route through Nebraska was lawful as an excuse for delay, changed its reason for threatening a veto last week.
The White House now says a veto is still coming but shifted on the reason, claiming the President wouldn't allow Congress to rule on what is traditionally an executive decision.
"If this bill passes this Congress, the President wouldn't sign it," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said. "There's already a well-established process in place to consider whether infrastructure projects like this are in the best interest of the country."
Republicans believe they can force the President's hand.
"Right now we've got about 63 [votes]," said Senator John Hoeven, a North Dakota Republican and co-sponsor of the Keystone XL approval legislation. "But we're going to the floor with an open amendment process, trying to foster more bipartisanship … so that we can pass this measure and other measures and either override the veto or attach the bill to other legislation that will get 67 votes."
But the nine Democrats currently voting with all 54 Republicans in the Senate may be unwilling to support Republican efforts to tuck Keystone inside a must-pass appropriations bill and thus put the President in the position where a veto could shut down the government.
Nevada Democratic Senator Harry Reid called Keystone XL a "farce" that has "taken on a life of its own and it's being used for political purposes."
Anti-Keystone XL activists claims thousands will rally against the pipeline in more that a dozen U.S. and Canadian cities on Tuesday.