Republicans in Congress and a state supreme court have thrown the political hot potato known as Keystone XL straight back onto President Barack Obama's lap.
So loath is Obama to making a decision about the proposed oil pipeline that deliberations have entered their sixth year — a period nearly as long as Obama's time in office. He's blamed the seemingly endless delays on bureaucratic formalities and parochial issues in Nebraska, even when skeptics claimed that the politics of the next election were giving the president cold feet.
Now the election is over, the Nebraska issue is resolved, and a bipartisan bill forcing the pipeline's approval may soon be heading to Obama's desk. Forces on all sides of the debate, for once, have the same demand for Obama: Just make the call.
"It's time for the State Department and the president to make a decision on the Keystone XL pipeline — however they decide — because six years is beyond long enough," said Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, part of the minority of Democrats supporting the pipeline.
In April, just as the State Department's review of the pipeline was nearing an end, Obama indefinitely suspended it. Facing a difficult political climate, many Democrats had been anxious about Obama making a decision before the November midterm elections. Still, the White House said it was uncertainty about the pipeline's route, spurred by a Nebraska court challenge, that prompted the delay.
That rationale expired Friday. The Nebraska Supreme Court tossed out the lawsuit, clearing the way for the pipeline to snake through Nebraska as previously envisioned. The State Department, which has jurisdiction because the pipeline would start in Canada, said it would pick up its review where it left off, but it was unclear how long that review will take to finish.
Republicans and some Democrats don't want to wait for that review to play out. Wielding their newfound control of both chambers of Congress, Republicans are speeding a bill through Congress authorizing construction of the 1,179-mile pipeline, which would carry more than 800,000 barrels of crude oil a day from Canada to refineries along the Texas Gulf Coast.
The House approved the bill Friday — one of the first bills taken up by Congress in 2015. The Senate planned a test vote on an identical bill Monday, with plans to deliver the final bill to Obama in short order.
Obama has threatened repeatedly to veto that bill, arguing that Congress must not circumvent the executive branch's authority. So far, Republicans haven't shown they have the votes to override Obama's veto. On Saturday, a group of Keystone opponents, organized by the advocacy group 350.org, planned to rally outside the White House to insist Obama make good on his veto threat.
Obama has long bemoaned that the proposed pipeline has taken on a political life of its own, becoming a proxy battle for the broader debate over global warming.
"A vote against Keystone sends the signal that our government is taking the science of climate change and risk analysis seriously," said Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M.
Environmental groups have waged protests and acts of civil disobedience, arguing the project would unravel U.S. progress in combatting climate change. The energy industry and business groups have say Obama is jeopardizing an $8 billion project that could create thousands of jobs.
In his public comments, Obama has said he'll only allow the pipeline if it won't lead to increased carbon dioxide emissions. Yet he has also voiced skepticism about claims by supporters that the pipeline will create jobs or lessen U.S. dependence on foreign oil, in what environmentalists hope is an attempt by Obama to lay the groundwork for an eventual denial of the pipeline's permit.
"I think that there's been this tendency to really hype this thing as some magic formula to what ails the U.S. economy," Obama said in his end-of-2014 news conference.
Even after the Nebraska court ruled Friday, the White House said little to suggest a decision was imminent. But White House officials warned that Obama's veto threat was still good.
For Obama, the GOP's attempt to force his hand on Keystone is just one example of his diminished leverage over Congress in his final two years. Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., who is sponsoring the Keystone bill in the Senate, said approving the pipeline would be a good-faith measure that would make it easier for Obama and Republicans to compromise on other fronts.
"That would show some willingness on his part to start working together," Hoeven said, citing tax reform and support for the military areas for potential cooperation. "He's got to start working with Congress."