WASHINGTON Legislation to approve the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline began racing through the U.S. Congress on Wednesday as Democrats and Republicans appeared to be coming together in a challenge of President Barack Obama's oversight of the project.
In a series of rapid developments that unfolded just hours after Congress returned from a seven-week recess, there were indications the measure could pass and be sent to Obama sometime next week.
Republicans, victorious in the Nov. 4 congressional elections in which they campaigned heavily on the need for Keystone, have been pushing for approval of the project amid objections from some Democrats.
"It is time for America to become energy independent and that is impossible without the Keystone pipeline and other pipelines like it," Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana told reporters. Landrieu and Senator John Hoeven, a Republican of North Dakota, introduced the bill on May 1.
Landrieu, who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, is fighting for her political life as she faces a runoff race early next month that will determine whether she can serve another six-year Senate term beginning in January.
Landrieu acknowledged to reporters that she had no commitment from Obama that he would sign a Keystone bill if Congress sends one to him.
Obama is currently in Asia, and a spokesman traveling with him said the White House took a dim view of the proposal.
"The administration has taken a dim view of these kinds of legislative proposals in the past," said White House spokesman Josh Earnest, speaking to reporters in Naypyitaw, the capital of Myanmar. "It’s fair to say that our dim view of these kinds of proposals has not changed.
"Evaluating those earlier proposals, we have indicated that the president’s senior advisers at the White House have recommended that he veto legislation like that," Earnest added. "And that has continued to be our position."
Republican Representative Bill Cassidy is challenging Landrieu for her Senate seat.
Their campaigns appeared to move from Louisiana to Washington on Wednesday as Landrieu touted her long work in favor of TransCanada Corp's (TRP.TO) $8 billion Keystone project.
Cassidy immediately responded by introducing a nearly identical bill in the House. Other versions already have passed the Republican-controlled chamber.
The Obama administration has been weighing for six years whether to approve the pipeline that would run from Canada south to the U.S. Gulf of Mexico. The project also faces a court challenge in Nebraska over the pipeline's route.
Environmentalists, an important Democratic constituency, have argued against encouraging Canada's extraction of a crude oil that is seen as particularly polluting and will worsen global climate change problems.
The moves in Congress also came as the United States and China, two of the biggest users of polluting fossil fuels such as coal and oil, announced new long-term goals for limiting emissions linked to climate change.
A House vote on Keystone was set for as early as Thursday and if the Senate next week also approves the bill, possibly on Tuesday, Congress would be aiming to take the decision on the pipeline out of Obama's hands.
But it still would be up to Obama whether to sign the measure into law, which would please labor unions that covet the potential pipeline construction projects, or veto it and challenge Congress to override him.
The pipeline project needs presidential approval because it crosses an international border.
Wednesday's developments kicked off a furious lobbying campaign by environmentalists, who want to kill the legislative effort and leave the pipeline decision in Obama's hands.
"This tar sands oil pipeline was a bad idea before the election and it remains a bad idea," said Danielle Droitsch of the Natural Resources Defense Council.
"The pipeline would mean that more of the world’s dirtiest oil flows through the United States, threatening water supplies. And burning the additional tar sands oil would needlessly worsen climate change," Droitsch said.
(Additional reporting by Steve Holland, Valerie Volcovici, Amanda Becker and Matt Spetalnick, Writing by Richard Cowan; Editing by Sandra Maler and Lisa Shumaker)