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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky returns to his office on Capitol Hill on Jan. 29, 2015, after the Senate passed a bipartisan bill approving construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline.J. Scott Applewhite/The Associated Press

Keystone XL backers in the Senate voted decisively Thursday to strip President Barack Obama of decision-making authority over the controversial Canadian oil sands pipeline, triggering a political confrontation between the Republican-controlled Congress and the Democratic president.

Mr. Obama has vowed to veto any attempt to force approval of the long-delayed project that has soured Canada-U.S. relations since Prime Minister Stephen Harper called Keystone XL a "no-brainer" of a decision.

Significantly, the Senate vote – 62-36 backing Keystone XL – fell well short of the 67 votes needed to override a presidential veto. Republicans have already threatened to try again – tucking Keystone XL approval into a "must-pass" funding bill if Mr. Obama makes good on his initial veto threat. If that happens, the largely symbolic political posturing of Thursday vote will be replaced by high-stakes brinksmanship pitting the President and Congressional Republicans over who would be blamed for shutting down the government over the fate of a Canadian pipeline project.

TransCanada, the Canadian government and the oil industry all hailed the Senate's vote and its pointed challenge to Mr. Obama's repeated delays in deciding whether to approve the $8-billion pipeline from Alberta across the United States to the Gulf Coast of Texas.

Opponents, especially environmental activist groups that have turned Keystone XL into a proxy for Mr. Obama's integrity on his promises take global warming seriously, denounced senators backing the pipeline as toadies of big oil.

Republicans, who won control of the Senate in last November's midterm elections, chose the Keystone XL approval bill as their first priority to challenge Mr. Obama; a priority that drew scorn from many Democratic senators.

"This is the only time in the history of the Senate that we have given such a big hug and kiss to a private company," Senator Barbara Boxer, a Californian and top-ranking member of the environment committee. "This bill is a disgrace."

But Keystone XL backers called it a job-creation and energy-independence bill backed by a majority of Americans and accused the President of pandering to billionaire environmental activists and the green lobby.

"We hope President Obama will now drop his threat to veto this common-sense bill that would strengthen our energy security and create thousands and thousands of new, good-paying American jobs," said House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican.

Both Houses of Congress have now passed Keystone XL approval bills – the House of Representatives for the 10th time.

Mr. Obama hasn't said he will reject Keystone XL, only that he will veto Congressional efforts to seize control of the decision-making process.

But the President has sounded increasingly negative about whether funnelling Canadian oil sands crude across the United States to Texas refineries alongside Gulf Coast ports offers any benefits to Americans.

"Understand what this project is: It is providing the ability of Canada to pump their oil, send it through our land, down to the Gulf, where it will be sold everywhere else," he said after the mid-term elections when several pro-Keystone XL Democrats lost their senate seats.

The President has said he will approve Keystone XL only if it is in the U.S. national interest and doesn't exacerbate greenhouse gas emissions.

TransCanada Corp. president Russ Girling, who has publicly disputed Mr. Obama's characterization of Keystone XL as an export conduit, hailed Thursday's Senate vote.

"Those who argue this pipeline is for export are not being factual," he said. "Why on earth would Canadian and U.S. companies pay to ship their oil to Gulf Coast refineries, then pay again to ship that same oil overseas."

American Petroleum Institute president Jack Gerard said the "bipartisan passage of legislation to build the Keystone XL pipeline shows Congress can find common ground and follow the will of the American people."

Nine Democratic senators backed the bill as did all 53 Republicans who voted.

Opponents in the Senate and elsewhere claim Keystone XL would spur the development of Alberta's vast oil sands, which, they say, are the filthiest, most carbon-laden crude reserves on the planet and will seriously exacerbate global warming.

"The project would transport Canadian tar sands oil – the dirtiest fuel on the planet – through America's heartland, only to be refined and then shipped abroad," said Danielle Droitsch, director of the Canada Project at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "It would threaten our waters, our lands and worsen carbon pollution. It's absolutely not in our national interest."

In Ottawa, Finance Minister Joe Oliver, who lobbied for years on behalf of Keystone XL, welcome the Senate vote. "It's an important project for Canada and for the United States. The majority of Americans are supportive of it, and I hope eventually it'll be approved."

Once the House and Senate versions of the Keystone XL approval legislation are reconciled, the bill will be sent to the Oval Office. Then Mr. Obama has 10 days to sign it or – as he has threatened – veto it.

"Ultimately, the Republican Senate's tar sands tactics are going to amount to nothing," said

Michael Brune, Executive Director of the Sierra Club. "President Obama has made it clear he will reject these attacks on his authority and repeatedly stated that he will reject the tar sands pipeline if it contributes to the climate crisis."

Follow Paul Koring on Twitter: @PaulKoringOpens in a new window

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