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Keystone backers in U.S. Senate trying to go around Obama for pipeline approval

The Washington Monument backdrops a protest banner against the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline, by an alliance of natives, cowboys, ranchers and farmers, on April 24, 2014.

Manuel Balce Ceneta/Associated Press

In an attempt to shove President Barack Obama aside and force approval of Canada's controversial Keystone XL pipeline, backers of the project to provide an outlet for Alberta's oil sands introduced legislation on Thursday that would give Congress the right to decide.

Senator John Hoeven, a North Dakota Republican whose state's burgeoning Bakken oil reserves could also reach Gulf Coast refineries more cheaply by thinning the tar-like bitumen from Canada in Keystone XL, maintained that he had 55 co-sponsors.

Opponents were unimpressed.

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Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org, said that "the endless attempts of bought-off politicians with Big Oil money to ram this thing through America's Heartland are as disheartening as they are predictable."

Jane Kleeb, director of Bold Nebraska, decried that some senators "were twisting and turning as they tried to do the bidding of big oil."

The Nebraska Supreme Court is expected to rule later this year or early in 2015 on whether a lower court ruling that found there was no approved route through the state should stand. The White House has indicated that it will await that ruling before making its decision.

Meanwhile, it remained unclear if the 100-seat Senate would actually vote on the bill that would remove the approval process from the executive branch – in this case Mr. Obama after the State Department finishes with the file.

It needs 60 senators to clear procedural hurdles.

Even if it passes and similar legislation is approved in the Republican-held House of Representatives, it is almost certain that Mr. Obama would simply veto the attempt to wrest control away from the executive.

The Obama administration has already announced that it would again delay a Keystone XL decision for months – almost certainly until after November's midterm elections – much to the ongoing frustration of TransCanada Corp. and Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government, which has lobbied so hard that it has turned approval of the project into a test of whether Washington really cares about Canada.

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Mr. Hoeven admitted that he expects pushback from the White House.

And there were already signs of squabbling among the bill's backers.

Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu, one of Keystone XL's strongest supporters and one of the Democrats most in danger of being defeated in November has already distanced herself from Mr. Obama.

She wants the "approve-Keystone XL" bill to be dealt with as a separate matter.

Among the other 10 Democrats backing the bill were North Carolina's Kay Hagan, Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Alaska's Mark Begich, considered along with Ms. Landrieu the most vulnerable to a Republican effort to win control of the Senate in November.

But Mr. Hoeven suggested that the bill could be grafted on to a bigger energy bill for which Democrats want Republican support. That tactic would make it harder for the President to veto.

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Republican Majority Leader Harry Reid has yet to confirm he will put the bill to a vote, but he indicated that it would happen only as a stand-alone measure.

And Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said his party wanted more than another non-binding vote, like the one last year which broadly supported Keystone XL and was ignored by the White House.

Authority to approve international transboundary projects, like pipelines, rests with the executive although this legislation would seek to challenge that.

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