Republican senators kicked off the new U.S. Congress with legislation to approve the hotly disputed Keystone XL oil pipeline, but the White House promptly threatened a veto.
With Republicans assuming full control of Congress on Tuesday after their victories in the November election, they have put Keystone at the center of their legislative agenda and plan weeks of debate.
They believe that the public spotlight on the issue will pressure President Barack Obama to eventually approve the project. If Obama vetoes the initial legislation, backers will attach it to a wider measure he could find harder to reject, such as a must-pass spending bill or steps to improve energy efficiency.
The White House was adamant that Obama would not sign the Keystone legislation.
“There is already a well-established process in place to consider whether or not infrastructure projects like this are in the best interest of the country,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters.
Senator John Hoeven, a North Dakota Republican, introduced a bill to approve TransCanada Corp’s project that would transport more than 800,000 barrels per day of mostly Canadian heavy oil to Nebraska en route to refineries along the U.S. Gulf Coast.
Obama, who has been considering the pipeline for six years, has opposed previous bills to force the project through, saying the State Department needs to complete its approval process. Earnest renewed the veto threat after the senators introduced the bill.
Both Republican and Democratic lawmakers predicted that 63 senators would back the pipeline, enough for the bill to pass but short of the 67 votes that would be needed to overcome a veto.
“We may not have enough to overcome a veto, so it may be a two-step process,” Hoeven told Reuters.
Democrats accused Republicans of trying to rush the measure to the floor after new Senate Majority Leader McConnell moved to bypass the energy committee that has jurisdiction over the issue. A Senate hearing on Keystone that was to be held on Wednesday on the issue was canceled. Keystone has divided Democrats between environmentalists, who say oil sands mining will raise emissions linked to climate change, and union supporters who say it will add thousands of construction jobs and boost energy security.
McConnell has promised to open the amendment process on legislation, allowing the full Senate to weigh in on proposed additions to bills.
(Reporting by Timothy Gardner and Richard Cowan, additional reporting by Jeff Mason; Editing by Marguerita Choy and Caren Bohan)