Republican efforts to stifle debate on Keystone XL failed on Monday when even Democratic backers of the controversial Canadian pipeline that would send Alberta oil sands crude across the United States to the Gulf coast balked at forcing a vote.
The Senate voted 53-39 to cut off debate, short of the 60 votes required. The vote exposed a new, bitter round of partisan wrangling over Republican efforts to curtail debate and limit amendments on legislation that would approve the pipeline after they promised just the opposite once they gained a majority in the Senate in last November's midterm elections.
The vote delays, but likely will not derail, efforts by Keystone's backers to pass legislation seizing control of the approval process from U.S. President Barack Obama. At least nine Democratic senators are willing to join the 54 Republicans supporting the bill and the pipeline. That will be enough to secure passage, but the Democratic supporters of Keystone XL would not support efforts by Senator Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican and the new majority leader, to force an early end to debate.
"Senator McConnell promised Democrats an open amendment process and a full-throated debate on the Keystone pipeline, and we are holding him to that promise," said Senator Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat.
California Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer accused Republicans of running roughshod. "All this to help a Canadian private company make a whole bunch of money," she said, adding: "We still have this gagathon going on from the other side," referring to Republican efforts to deny sponsors of amendments even 60 seconds to speak.
Even Senator Heidi Heitkamp, a North Dakota Democrat, a co-sponsor of the pro-Keystone XL bill and one of the staunchest allies of the Canadian government in its unceasing efforts to lobby for the $8-billion TransCanada Corp. project, railed against the Republican tactics.
"I hope we will be able to come back and introduce some of these amendments," she said in objecting to Republican efforts to thwart proposed changes that would tighten safety and inspection standards.
In Monday's vote, Mr. McConnell was the lone Republican to vote against closing off debate, but he apparently did that as a procedural manoeuvre so he can re-visit the issue.
The revolt will likely be a temporary setback to the legislation.
A similar bill has passed the Republican-dominated House of Representatives. Passage is all but certain in the Senate, but it may now be weeks away.
Mr. Obama has vowed to veto any Congressional effort to take control of the approval process, which he regards as part of his executive authority.
Even with the nine Democratic Senators backing Keystone XL, the 54 Republicans are short of the two thirds majority – 67 votes in the 100-seat Senate – needed to override a presidential veto.
Republicans threaten that – if the President does veto – they will put Keystone XL approval legislation in a bill Mr. Obama will have to pass.