Senate Democrats Reject Keystone XL Pipeline Instead of Trying to Save One of Their Own

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WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 18:  U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) speaks after the Senate voted on the Keystone XL Pipeline Bill at the U.S. Capitol on November 18, 2014 in Washington, DC. The vote failed to pass by a margin of 59-41. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Landrieu at a press conference after the Senate vote.Photo: Win McNamee/2014 Getty Images

Environmentalists won another victory in the years-long battle over the Keystone XL Pipeline on Tuesday when legislation that would have approved its construction narrowly failed to pass in the Senate. The vote was only put on the agenda in an effort to help Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, who is facing a runoff election in December, but despite her impassioned pleas, she only managed to recruit 14 of 55 fellow Democrats to her cause. Identical legislation from Landrieu’s opponent, Representative Bill Cassidy, has already passed in the House, but even with support from all 45 Senate Republicans, the final tally only came to 59–41. That’s 1 shy of the 60 votes needed to send the legislation to President Obama.

Aside from environmental concerns, many Democrats said they didn’t support the measure because only the president has the authority to approve the project, which has been under review by the State Department for six years. President Obama has been coy about where he stands on the issue, and the latest rumor is that he hopes to use the pipeline as a “bargaining chip” in 2015, promising not to veto the project in exchange for Republicans approving one of his policies. (Though, as New York’s Jonathan Chait notes, that’s probably wishful thinking.)

Landrieu has often split with liberals in her party on environmental issues and was known as the Democrat most sympathetic to the oil industry. Some Senate Democrats praised Landrieu for her hard work on bringing the bill to the floor, but it wasn’t enough to make them cross party lines — particularly because there’s little evidence that approving the bill would have prevented another Democratic seat from turning Republican. As the New York Times explains, it’s unlikely that the bill’s passage would have given Landrieu the boost she needs in the runoff, because “her problem is that the coalition that used to elect Southern Democrats like herself no longer exists in Louisiana.” She needs support from about one third of Louisiana’s white voters, but in the last decade they’ve been turning against Democrats.

Of course, the issues surrounding the pipeline’s approval are far from resolved. Just minutes after the vote, Senator Mitch McConnell, the incoming majority leader, said, “I look forward to the new Republican majority taking up and passing the Keystone jobs bill early in the new year.”