Senators back Keystone XL and EPA regs but oppose carbon tax

Posted: Mar 27, 2013

Written by

Nick Juliano, Greenwire
Keystone pipeline

A filibuster-proof majority of senators are now on record supporting the controversial Keystone XL pipeline after a nonbinding but symbolically important series of votes this weekend that also demonstrated resistance to a carbon tax but backing for U.S. EPA rules to limit greenhouse gases and toxic pollutants from power plants.

Those issues were among dozens the Senate considered in an all-night "vote-a-rama" that started Friday afternoon and wrapped up just before 5 a.m. EDT Saturday when the Senate narrowly approved its first budget resolution in four years, 50-49.

The budget -- including amendments to it -- has no legal force but serves as a guidepost to the Senate's priorities for the coming year. Budget rules allow for an unlimited number of amendments that cannot be filibustered, providing a rare opportunity for senators to force their colleagues to weigh in on controversial issues.

Some of the most closely watched votes came relatively early Friday evening, when the Senate considered a pair of amendments related to the Keystone XL pipeline, which would transport crude from Alberta's oil sands to Texas refineries. The line's fate has become a proxy for larger energy, environmental and climate policy fights as pipeline supporters complain of years-long reviews from an Obama administration they see as hostile to fossil fuel development, while critics say it would lead to unsustainable increases in planet-warming emissions and could foul drinking water supplies if it leaks.

Pipeline supporters scored a decisive victory Friday, even though it will have no immediate effect on whether the line ultimately gets built. Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) offered an amendment mirroring his stand-alone legislation that would circumvent the administrative reviews and mandate Keystone's approval; it passed 62-37, with 17 Democrats joining all Republicans in support.

"Passing this Keystone XL amendment demonstrates with the clarity and firmness of a formal vote that the U.S. Senate supports the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline and finds it in the national interest of the American people," Hoeven said in a statement following Friday's vote.

The vote demonstrated that the bill has enough backing to overcome a filibuster, although pipeline opponents retain a trump card in Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who controls which legislation comes to the floor and voted against the Hoeven amendment. A Reid spokesman did not respond to a request for comment today.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) offered a counterpoint to Hoeven's Keystone amendment that called for consideration of issues including oil exports and whether the pipeline would be constructed with U.S.-manufactured steel. It did not directly call for the pipeline's rejection, although critics said it would erect enough roadblocks to effectively do that.

Boxer's amendment failed 33-66, although the back-to-back votes on the amendments revealed apparently contradictory positions among some Democrats. Voting for both Boxer's and Hoeven's amendments were Sens. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Mark Warner (D-Va.), who is up for re-election next year.

A spokesman for Warner, Kevin Hall, said his votes for both amendments were not "inconsistent" because Boxer's amendment did not order the pipeline's rejection. Hall said Warner supports the project and has signed onto Hoeven-led letters to that effect but wants the administration to quickly make a decision on the project following the public-comment period on the State Department's current environmental review. He would not speculate how Warner would vote if Hoeven's bill came to the floor on a standalone basis or as an amendment to binding legislation.

A Tester spokeswoman gave a similar explanation.

"Senator Tester has consistently said that he supports building the pipeline as long as private property rights are respected. Sen. Tester also supports keeping the oil in the U.S. ... and he supports using domestic-steel in the construction of the pipeline," spokeswoman Andrea Helling said in an email, pointing to an earlier Tester effort to prevent export of Keystone-transported oil.

Several senators also voted against both amendments: Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Mo Cowan (D-Mass.), Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Angus King (I-Maine), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Mark Udall (D-Colo.) and Tom Udall (D-N.M.).

"Senator Brown believes the pipeline permitting decision should be made by the scientists and other experts who are charged with this responsibility, rather than by senators in Washington," said Lauren Kulik, a spokeswoman.

King, in an interview today, said he's inclined to be "skeptical" of the Keystone process because he suspects most of the oil it would transport would be exported. But he said he voted against Boxer's amendment to be consistent in his view that the decision should emerge from the ongoing administrative review, the same reason he voted against Hoeven's amendment. Boxer "wasn't very happy with me," but she understood the reasoning, King said.

"There's an established process and Congress shouldn't be trying to dictate the outcome," King told Greenwire.

It remains to be seen where Keystone supporters go from here. The House is expected to pass its bill to approve the pipeline sometime this spring, but it is all but guaranteed that Reid would not bring the Keystone bill to the floor on its own.

"While supporters can take some solace that they got more than 60 votes, in the end this nonbinding sense of the Senate resolution will have zero impact on any additional legislative efforts," said Jim Manley, a former Reid aide.

While there is no easy path to the floor, Keystone supporters likely will look for other opportunities to attach the bill to must-pass legislation, such as when Congress has to increase the debt ceiling later this summer or to fund the government when the next fiscal year begins in October. Manley, who left Reid's office in 2010, said he expects Reid to take the lead from the White House in determining whether to let the Keystone bill proceed attached to one of those other bills.

Keystone opponents will reach out to Democrats who supported the Hoeven amendment to better press the connection between the pipeline and climate change, said Josh Saks, legislative director at the National Wildlife Federation. But their focus will primarily be on the administration.

"The effort remains where it always has been -- this is a decision that President Obama and Secretary [of State John] Kerry are going to make," he said.

Climate change

The budget also brought several votes on climate change, with senators opposing both a carbon tax and a call to prevent federal regulations intended to combat climate change.

Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), a leading skeptic of climate science and one of EPA's chief critics, offered an amendment aimed at blocking EPA's greenhouse gas emission regulations and other federal efforts related to climate change. It failed 47-52, with Democratic Sens. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Mark Pryor of Arkansas supporting it, while Republican Susan Collins of Maine voted against it.

Landrieu, Pryor and Collins all are up for re-election next year.

Before the vote, which came just before midnight, Inhofe said his goal was not to get Democrats on the record about a controversial issue but to block money for regulatory efforts that had not explicitly been endorsed by Congress.

"They can't get it done through legislation, because the popularity isn't there. So they're doing something that has been rejected by the Legislature," he said. "To me, that's all the more reason why we should be doing this, to stop them from doing something that the Congress won't let them do."

In addition to upholding federal climate regulations, the Senate defeated an amendment from Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.) that sought to weaken EPA's mercury and air toxics rule by making it easier for power plants to win an exemption from its requirements. The amendment failed 46-53, with Democrats Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Manchin and Pryor voting for it, while Republicans Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Mark Kirk of Illinois and Collins voted against.

While there wasn't enough support to stop the government from pursuing its current climate change efforts, neither was there support to do more to address the problem by adding a price to carbon emissions.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) introduced an amendment calling for a carbon tax with the proceeds used for deficit reduction, lower tax rates or other programs. It failed 41-58, with 13 Democrats opposed. Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) offered a separate amendment seeking to explicitly block consideration of a carbon tax without the support of at least 60 senators. Although it won 53 votes in favor to 46 against, it was not attached to the budget because Democrats raised a point of order that would have required 60 votes to overcome.

Five Democrats -- Sens. Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Tim Johnson of South Dakota, Tim Kaine of Virginia, Tester and Warner -- voted against both amendments, effectively avoiding a position on a carbon tax. All but Kaine are up for re-election next year.

"We're open to a discussion and a debate on carbon taxes in the context of broader tax and energy policies -- not through a marathon vote-a-rama," said Hall, Warner's spokesman, in an email.

An amendment from Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) targeted the Department of Energy's loan guarantee program by proposing to divert $8 billion from that program and another $8 billion from foreign aid accounts to fund upgrades of crumbling bridges. It failed 26-72, with 19 Republicans joining all Democrats voting against it.

Senators also adopted a few amendments by voice vote, including one from Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) that would require labeling of genetically modified salmon, another from Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) calling for increased investments in the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy and a third from Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) aiming to boost resources for wildfire preparedness.

The House last week passed its own budget from Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) on a largely party-line vote that was free from the lengthy vote series because of stricter debate rules in the lower chamber. The House and Senate budgets would have to be reconciled to have much effect on the coming appropriations process, but there is little hope that will happen.

Still, senators were glad to go through the exercise last week.

"There is zero chance that there will be a conference committee budget, in my opinion," Blunt said before the vote last week. "But going through the process is important, and it helps tee up the ball for the appropriations process to get started. We have a top number that the law sets for us. So it's a worthwhile thing to do."



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