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Senate Democrats Support GOP Keystone XL Pipeline Strategy, Obama's Hand Forced

Enough Democrats in the U.S. Senate might be willing to sign off on a Republican plan to force a quicker decision by the Obama administration on the Keystone XL Pipeline that President Barack Obama may have to seriously decide if he is willing to issue a veto.

Updated December 17 -- WASHINGTON – Enough Democrats in the U.S. Senate were willing to sign off on a Republican plan to force a quicker decision by the Obama administration on the Keystone XL Pipeline. This means that President Barack Obama must decide if he is willing to issue a veto, or if he wants to simply reject -- or approve -- the controversial pipeline in short order.

The legislation passed the Senate Saturday in an 89 - 10 vote with the House expected to take it up shortly. Indications are that Obama will sign off on legislation, which ties a two-month payroll tax cut to a 60-day decision on the Keystone XL pipeline, despite earlier promises that he would reject such two-for-one legislation.

White House officials have told some news outlets that because the legislation does not require the pipeline to be built, Obama might now be forced to reject Keystone altogether because the State Department will not have enough time to thoroughly review the project under the 60 days granted in the legislation. Therefore, he won’t be coming through on his veto threat, but he will likely end up squashing the pipeline altogether.

The pipeline provision was successfully tied by the GOP to a payroll tax-cut extension that Democrats desperately wanted to maintain for working class Americans.

Senate leaders signed off on a tentative deal on the evening of December 16 that would allow for the extension for two months, while including a Keystone XL provision. Rank-and-file members were expected to vote on the plan over the weekend.

Democrats in the Senate have increasingly come forward to say that they would support the Republican strategy.

“I personally think the pipeline is absolutely in the national interest. It’ll help us reduce our dependence on foreign energy, at least foreign sources that are hostile to our interests,” Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., said on the Senate floor earlier in the week. “I, for one, on this side would hope that this could be part of a final package.”

“I am proud to again offer my support for the Keystone XL pipeline and the jobs it will create,” said Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, on the Senate floor. “We need a quicker decision, based on the merits of this project.”

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Tester and other Democrats supporting the plan have said in the past that they care about Native American interests, but they have ignored that American Indians have played a major role in protesting the proposed pipeline path, saying it would harm the public health and cultural fabric of Indian country. Tribal leaders have also noted a lack of consultation on the 1,700 mile TransCanada project.

Obama pledged earlier this month to reject any tying of the pipeline plan to the payroll tax cut legislation. Republicans leaders in the House quickly challenged his resolve, crafting legislation that would force a decision by Obama’s State Department within 60 days. State Department officials have said they need until 2013 to study alternative routes that would protect the Ogallala Aquifer and bypass tar sands in the United States.

Republicans say Obama has been playing a political game by postponing his decision until after the 2012 presidential election.

Given the Democratic signals of support for the plan in the Senate, Obama’s threat becomes all the more noteworthy because the GOP leadership likely has had enough votes in the House to pass the Senate plan.

Some Indians are especially concerned by the Democrats’ positions, given the fact that Democrats tend to count on Natives more than Republicans for votes.

One of the biggest concerns is perhaps that Obama will cave on his promised rejection. A tendency to over-compromise has been widely cited as a shortfall of his leadership skills during his presidency to date.

On December 16 at his daily press briefing, White House spokesman Jay Carney would not say whether Obama would veto legislation that ties Keystone to the payroll tax cuts: “I am not going to prejudge a final product that does not yet exist,” Carney said. "Again, the president is not making a judgment on whether the permit should or should not be granted. But what it shouldn't be is short-circuited because folks think it ought to be. That's what that review process is all about."

GOP Republican leaders, meanwhile, remained firm, saying they would not agree to any bill extending the payroll tax that doesn’t include a Keystone provision.