Obama Faces Defeat on Pipeline As Democrats Defect

Byron York

4/24/2012 12:01:00 AM - Byron York

While much of the political world obsesses over Twitter fights and Seamus the dog, Barack Obama has set himself up for a high-profile defeat on one of the most important issues of the campaign.

The president has put his feet in cement in opposing the proposed Keystone pipeline, which would bring newly discovered oil from Canada to refineries in Texas. In a contentious debate, Obama has sided with environmentalists, who fear an accident along a line carrying 700,000 barrels of oil into the U.S. might threaten water supplies. But on Capitol Hill, more and more Democrats are joining Republicans to force approval of the pipeline, whether or not Obama wants it.

The latest action happened last week, when the House passed a measure to move the pipeline forward. Before the vote, Obama issued a veto threat. The House approved the pipeline anyway -- by a veto-proof majority, 293-127. Sixty-nine Democrats abandoned the president to vote with Republicans. That's a lot of defections.

When the House voted on the pipeline in July of last year, 47 Democrats broke with the president. Now that it's an election year and the number is up to 69, look for Republicans to hold more pipeline votes before November. GOP leaders expect even more Democrats to join them.

Then there is the Senate. Democrats are using the filibuster to stop the pipeline, which means 60 votes are required to pass it. (Some Democrats who bitterly opposed the filibuster when Republicans used it against Obama initiatives are notably silent these days.) In a vote last month, 11 Senate Democrats stood up against Obama to vote in favor of the pipeline. Add those 11 to the Republicans' 47 votes, and the pro-pipeline forces are just a couple of votes away from breaking Majority Leader Harry Reid's filibuster.

"We're right around the corner from actually passing it," a well-informed Senate source says. "Two-hundred-ninety-three votes in the House is a gigantic number. People want this thing."

The president didn't help his cause when he staged an odd photo op last month, delivering a speech in Cushing, Okla., in front of huge stockpiles of pipes. Obama sang the praises of pipelines -- "It is critical that we make pipeline infrastructure a top priority," he said -- and made a big deal of his approval of a section of domestic pipeline that didn't need his approval. But he remained unyielding on Keystone.

In the latest House vote, the pipeline measure is attached to a larger transportation bill. That now goes to a conference with the Senate, which has passed a version of the transportation measure without the Keystone provision. It's not clear whether the pipeline will end up in the final bill. But it is certain that, whatever happens, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell will force another vote on Keystone sometime soon.

If the pipeline wins those last couple of Senate Democrats, then Obama will be faced with a bill that passed with a veto-proof majority in the House and over a Democratic filibuster in the Senate. The president would be forced either to make good on his veto threat or sign a bill moving the pipeline forward.

If he signs the bill, Obama would surely try to save face by claiming his concerns about the pipeline's routing and approval process had been met. But there's no way it would be seen as anything less than a major defeat.

If Obama vetoes the pipeline, he faces an embarrassing rebuff in the House. But in the Senate, it would take 67 votes to overturn the veto, and that's probably an insurmountable obstacle for pipeline supporters. All the president would need is 34 Democratic dead-enders to stick with him to stop the pipeline.

But Obama could prevail only at grave political cost. The rise in gas prices is a potent issue for Mitt Romney and Republicans, and it could become far more potent if prices increase in the summer. And the president would be standing alone -- not just against Republicans, but against a major coalition within his own party, including Big Labor -- in opposition to the effort to increase America's energy supplies. Not a good place to be with an election around the corner.

Meanwhile, the pipeline project is going forward. Recently, the company that will build the pipeline submitted plans for a new route through Nebraska, where much environmental opposition has been focused. And in Lincoln, the Nebraska legislature passed, and the governor signed, a new bill that would hasten state approval of the project.

The odds are overwhelming that the Keystone pipeline will become a reality. In the end, Barack Obama has mostly hurt himself by trying to stop it.