The Obama administration has been calling 2014 a “year of action,” a phrase designed to emphasize how the president is using executive power on various fronts at a time of congressional inactivity.
With the looming prospect of executive action on immigration policy, a very big counter-example is also front and center in the news: President Obama’s long delay in taking a yes-or-no decision on the proposed Keystone XL pipeline.
It’s an oil conduit from Canada that a majority of Americans support, a construction project that many unionized workers would love to build, and an energy opportunity that could end up bypassing the US entirely without White House action.
It’s also something the president could approve without congressional action. Instead, it’s been mired in some six years of review – a delay that critics say is about environmental politics rather than due process.
So this week an odd juxtaposition is on view: Mr. Obama saying he’ll act on immigration reform because Congress has failed to, while Congress is acting on Keystone to try to end what many lawmakers view as presidential obstructionism.
And now Obama is squaring off formally against fellow Democrats, as well as Republicans.
A Keystone bill swept to easy approval in the House Friday, with 31 Democrats joining the Republican majority, and a parallel bill is scheduled for Senate action next week, with Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) of Louisiana as a lead sponsor. (Until now Senate majority leader Harry Reid has kept the issue off the Senate floor, in a bid to protect Democrats from a divisive vote.)
Senator Landrieu hopes that passage of a measure to move ahead with the pipeline, with her as high-visibility sponsor, will help persuade Louisiana voters to keep her in office in a December runoff election.
It’s not clear if it will pass (the Senate vote will be close). But if it does and Obama vetoes it, he will look like he’s casting a member of his own party adrift at a pivotal moment, as well as blocking a project the public supports.
A veto would make it easier for Rep. Bill Cassidy, the Republican running against Landrieu, to argue that Democrats are thwarting job creation and energy supplies, and that Landrieu’s efforts can’t fix the problem.
A political argument for a presidential veto, however, is that Landrieu would remain an underdog in the runoff, even if Keystone is approved. A veto would allow Obama to keep his options on Keystone open.
Traveling in Myanmar, Obama told reporters he “won’t budge” on his position that a Keystone review process including the State Department still hasn’t run its course.
Critics of the president’s policy say a State Department review is already in hand, with estimates of relatively small environmental risks. On carbon emissions, a key concern of environmentalists, the State Department concluded that the Canadian tar-sand oil is likely to be produced whether it ends up flowing through the Keystone pipeline or is transported by some other means.
Environmental groups have been pushing Obama for a firm decision of “no.”
But, although a rejection of Keystone would please the liberal base of his party, it would be an unpopular one. Many political analysts say that explains why the administration has delayed a decision for several years.
A Pew Research Center analysis this year, breaking the electorate into eight groups based on their political attitudes, found support for Keystone among 7 of the 8 groups. In the group called “solid liberals,” 57 percent opposed the pipeline to 30 percent who favored it.
So approving Keystone could eliminate a point of Republican attack against Democrats for the 2016 elections – and even in Louisiana’s 2014 Senate race that's still under way.
Representative Cassidy happens to be a sponsor of the House measure on Keystone. The runoff is occurring because neither he nor Landrieu got the 50 percent vote total needed to win outright on Nov. 4, under Louisiana law.