Pointless Gambit

Keystone Senate Failure Is Environmental Kabuki Theater

The pipeline bill was already going to die before it failed to reach 60 votes in the Senate on Monday night. The suspense was only over who would kill it: Obama or the Democrats.

These days in the United States Senate, even the moments of drama are totally anti-climatic.

The bill to build the Keystone XL pipeline failed Tuesday night by a margin of 59-41, falling just one vote short of the 60-vote supermajority threshold needed for it to pass. If just one more Democrat had voted for the measure, it would have gone to President Obama’s desk—and likely been promptly vetoed. The bill was already going to die. The suspense was simply over the identity of the executioner.

The legislation, which would have allowed the construction of a pipeline to send oil from the tar sands of northern Alberta to refineries on the Gulf Coast of Texas, has long been a subject of heated debate. Republicans and some conservative Democrats tout the project as a creator of U.S. construction jobs and a reducer of U.S. dependence on oil from the Middle East. Liberals have railed against the potential environmental consequences of the pipeline, as it relies on the exploitation of tar sands, which discharge far more climate change-causing carbon dioxide emissions than traditional energy and natural gas deposits.

While the Republican-controlled House had voted nine times in favor of the pipeline, Democrats had never allowed a vote in the Senate, fearful of the political fallout. But that fear evaporated after the midterm elections, when Republicans won control of the Senate. And one Democratic senator who supports the pipeline, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, is facing a tough runoff December 6 and needed to launch a Hail Mary pass. This vote was it.

With polls showing Landrieu down by double digits against Republican Bill Cassidy and national Democrats short of money to air ads on her behalf at home, the senator had been using the pipeline to show her support for the energy industry and her independence from environmentalists. She was also seeking to highlight her clout as chair of the Senate Energy Committee and her distance from the White House in a state that Barack Obama lost twice. The bill had become her cause, and she seemed to be hoping that its approval in the Senate would convince otherwise conservative Louisianans to vote for her.

Instead, Landrieu spent most of the 25 minutes of the vote standing alone in the well of the Senate, trying to sway members of her party to her side. Her fellow Democrats seemed confused about how to deal with her. They knew it was a funeral; they just didn’t know if she was in mourning or if she was the corpse. Some came over and offered their condolences and a hug. Others avoided eye contact as they cast their vote against the bill and quickly walked past her.

Afterward, Republicans, who unanimously supported the pipeline, seemed unfazed. They were confident that there would be more votes for it next year. John Hoeven of North Dakota expressed his confidence that the bill would pass in 2015, either as a stand-alone measure or as part of a bigger compromise package that the president would have to sign. Pro-pipeline Democrats, meanwhile, appeared to be searching desperately for ways to turn a crushing defeat into a moral victory. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota went out of her way say she was “grateful for the opportunity in this Congress to vote” on Keystone and to praise Landrieu as the one senator who gave her the opportunity.

Left unspoken but understood was the awkward fact that even if Landrieu had managed to snag one extra senator to support the pipeline, the bill still wouldn’t have become law. Obama would have vetoed it. Landrieu’s hope, it seemed, was that a veto would have looked better for her. At least she would have demonstrated some sort of political clout in the bill’s failure. She was gambling on a coin toss where somehow “heads, you win” would have been politically more advantageous than “tails, I lose.”

As the bill failed in the Senate, a pigtailed member of the Lakota Sioux tribe stood up in the gallery and began chanting. Heads turned and people stared for a minute, as three policemen him pulled out of the chamber. Then they returned to what’s normal in Washington: debating the potential fallout of a pointless political gambit.