Ohio Senator: GOP majority would get Obama ‘to the table’ on Keystone XL

No major energy legislation has passed the Senate since 2007, but that could change if Republicans take control in November's midterm elections. Sen. Rob Portman (R) of Ohio told reporters at a Monitor-hosted breakfast Thursday that a majority GOP Senate would 'get the president to the table' on Keystone XL and other key energy issues.  

Michael Bonfigli/The Christian Science Monitor
National Republican Senatorial Committee Vice Chairman for Finance Rob Portman speaks at the St. Regis Hotel in Washington Thursday. Sen. Portman listed several energy issues that he thought a Republican Senate majority could successfully tackle including the controversial Keystone XL pipeline.

Partisan squabbling has stalled energy legislation – and, for those keeping score, most other legislation – for the last several years.

But if Republicans capture the Senate in November’s midterm elections, could a GOP Congress compromise with President Obama to revamp US energy policy?

That’s what Sen. Rob Portman (R) of Ohio thinks. At a breakfast hosted by the Christian Science Monitor Thursday in Washington, Portman listed several energy issues that he thought a Republican Senate majority could successfully tackle: specifically, the controversial Keystone XL pipeline and an energy efficiency bill.

“A Republican majority helps make those happen,” Senator Portman told reporters. “By getting a Republican majority we get the president to the table on some of these issues.”

With Democrats tied to an unpopular president, and several vulnerable incumbents defending seats in states that lean red, many observers say a Republican Senate is an increasingly likely prospect. The GOP-led House, meanwhile, stands to expand its majority in November.

“If [Republicans win the Senate], you will see an early and aggressive push by the Republican majority to promote and pass an all-of-the-above energy strategy that reduces energy costs for consumers and enhances the reliability of our electric grid,” Portman told the Monitor in an e-mailed statement after Thursday’s breakfast.

“The Senate has not passed a major energy bill since 2007," he added, "so there is a lot of pent up demand to enact policies that would promote domestic oil and gas development, streamline the permitting process for all energy projects, approve the Keystone XL pipeline, promote research and development of advanced energy technologies, and make our economy more energy efficient.”

At least two of the items on Republicans’ energy to-do list already have some bipartisan support, making them low-hanging fruit should the GOP win the Senate: Loosening the decades-old ban on US oil exports, and approving the long-delayed Keystone XL project, a pipeline that would deliver Canadian oil sands to US refineries.

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“If [Democrats] narrowly lose, the president could well end up with a Keystone bill on his desk in early 2015,” William Galston, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank, told the Monitor in August.

And if Portman’s prognostications of bipartisan compromise prove true, there could be action on an energy efficiency bill similar to the one Portman and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D) of New Hampshire pushed earlier this year.

“It’s a pretty non-controversial bill,” says Meghan McGuinness, associate director for energy and environment at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington-based think tank. “But as we’ve seen this year, it’s been bogged down in the politics of Keystone.”

Sparring between Democrats and Republicans over amendments to the bill ultimately torpedoed its chances of getting a vote. But would it really stand a better chance in a Republican Senate?

“There’s some possibility that, under Republican leadership, some of the political things that bogged it down this time around could be handled separately,” McGuinness says in a telephone interview Thursday.

It’s possible, though far from certain, that a unified, Republican-held Congress could reduce gridlock and lead to compromise with the President – particularly with both parties posturing in the run-up to the 2016 presidential race.

“[I]t would be in the interest of the Republican majority in both houses, should one develop, and President Obama to position their party brands as able to do business,” Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, told the Monitor in early September.

And energy could be a good place to compromise if Republicans capture the Senate, given the number of moderate, energy-state Democrats in the chamber.

“The Energy Committee has such a strong history of working cooperatively across the aisle,” McGuinness says, “and our hope is that after the election that will continue.”

The Energy Committee’s bipartisan spirit was evident Wednesday, as Democrats and Republicans on the Committee praised the Department of Energy’s authorization of two new LNG terminals, which will ship the US’s booming gas supplies overseas. Expanding gas exports draws the ire of environmentalists and other critics who say it will raise domestic energy prices and increase the use of a fuel that – albeit cleaner-burning than coal – still emits greenhouse gases that warm the planet.

But for many in the Senate, capitalizing on newfound US energy wealth is a rare opportunity for bipartisanship.

Energy Chair Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) of Louisiana said in a statement that the terminals will "create thousands of high-paying jobs in Southwest Louisiana, open new markets for American producers, and position the United States as an energy superpower."

Energy Committee Ranking Member Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) of Alaska – who would likely replace Senator Landrieu if Republicans win the Senate – enthusiastically agreed.

“The economic and energy security benefits of exporting LNG to our friends and allies are straightforward and irrefutable,” Senator Murkowski said in a statement Thursday.

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