Stephanie Grace: Pipeline bill has complicated politics

The proposed Keystone XL pipeline wouldn’t run anywhere near Louisiana. Far from it: The project, the subject of a contentious oil-versus-environment fight in Washington, would start in Canada and end in Nebraska, where it would hook up with other pipelines that snake south to Texas.

Yet the debate over the pipeline’s future runs straight through Louisiana politics and the state’s big fall U.S. Senate race.

President Barack Obama threw fellow Democrat Mary Landrieu for a loop when he delayed a final decision on whether to greenlight the project before the election, but he also, in essence, handed her the ball.

As new chairwoman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Landrieu can use the situation to assert her independence from Obama and prove her power to help an industry — two key planks in her campaign. Failing that, she can watch it be used against her, as proof that her seniority and professed influence aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.

Landrieu, of course, is aiming for option A. Last week, she and North Dakota Republican John Hoeven introduced a bill to immediately approve TransCanada’s State Department application to build the pipeline.

The politics of the matter for her are pretty straightforward; while environmentalists pushing Obama to reject the pipeline don’t like it, she’s never been a favorite of theirs, anyway. And they surely understand that any Republican who’d replace Landrieu would be even less of a friend — and that a Landrieu loss that triggers a shift to GOP control of the Senate would be the movement’s worst nightmare.

The bill’s sponsors include all 45 Republicans and 11 Democrats, leaving it just shy but definitely in striking distance of the magic number of 60. So its prospects, on paper, are strong.

So, though, is the GOP impulse to deny Landrieu a victory she can trot out before voters, which is where Louisiana’s Republican delegation enters the picture.

While no self-respecting Republican would dare oppose the pipeline, that doesn’t mean the party’s going along quietly.

Louisiana’s five GOP House members — a group that just happens to include Landrieu’s chief Senate campaign rival, U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy — fired the first shot when they released a joint statement claiming a little slice of credit for the latest development, even as they launched a mild criticism.

“While we are glad Senate Majority Leader (Harry) Reid and Senator Landrieu took our advice and are finally acting on something that should have been addressed more than 2,000 days ago, the Senate’s bill has concerns,” they wrote.

Yet the real mischief maker, as usual, seems to be U.S. Sen. David Vitter.

Vitter, of course, has joined his fellow Republicans in sponsoring the bill. How could he not?

But he’s also throwing a wrench into the works by reviving his old attempt to force members of Congress and their staffs to give up their health insurance subsidies used to purchase coverage on the Affordable Care Act insurance exchanges. Vitter insists the subsidies amount to a special deal, even though most Americans who work for government and large businesses receive the same benefit now, just as they did before the health care law was enacted.

What does that have to do with the pipeline? Well, nothing, and, in the complicated world of Senate procedure, potentially everything.

On straight up-or-down votes, the pipeline might well pass, and Vitter’s measure would almost definitely fail. But that’s not how it’s likely to play out. In fact, all sorts of questions are flying around about how to handle the various proposals, including whether to attach the Keystone measure to a larger energy efficiency bill that Obama supports, to avert a veto.

Vitter is demanding a vote on his measure — either as an amendment or standalone — even though it’s a poison pill for senators who want to keep their insurance benefit and loathe the idea of forcing their employees to take an effective pay cut. Yet they don’t want to vote against it, either.

And he insists he’s being perfectly reasonable, and that Reid is the one playing games and using the health care proposal as an excuse not to act on Keystone.

If Landrieu manages to get her bill through under these circumstances, she’d not only bolster her own reputation for getting things done. She’d also be able to claim to have outmaneuvered her longtime nemesis.

Voters might not care about that last part, but you can bet she would.

Stephanie Grace can be contacted at sgrace@theadvocate.com. Read her blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/gracenotes. Follow her on Twitter @stephgracenola.