It remains to be seen whether the House and the Senate can resolve their differences on the latest budget bill, but the Senate version promises to back the Obama administration into an uncomfortable corner with regard to the proposed Keystone XL pipleline. As part of Saturday’s 89 – 10 vote to extend payroll tax cuts for another two months, the Senate gave the president a sixty-day deadline to make a decision on the Keystone project. The White House had rejected the idea including outright approval of the project in the bill, but said that the two-month deadline was acceptable.
Assuming that the House and Senate can agree on a compromise bill, it’s likely that the Keystone provision will survive and that will be interesting. Obama has been loath to pick a side on the pipeline issue. On the one hand, if he kills the project, the president opens himself to criticism for denying Americans access to a plentiful source of North American crude and for losing this opportunity to create a plethora of jobs without spending any tax dollars. Yet, if he allows the project to move forward, Obama is sure to annoy the environmental activists who form part of his base.
It’s hard to believe that environmentalists have any other places to go in the coming election and it’s almost as unlikely that they would choose to stay home out of pure petulance over the pipeline. Nonetheless, the Obama team has always been ultra-cautious when it comes to its perceived base and this is another example of the phenomenon.
Pressed to make a decision on the pipeline, the president instead kicked this particular can down the road last month. The administration decided to study an alternative route for the pipeline, which would conveniently have delayed any decision until after the 2012 election. It was the best of two political worlds in a lot of ways. By postponing the decision, Obama could tell environmentalists that he was duly evaluating every bit of data before coming to a decision, while he could simultaneously claim not to have shut down the project out of hand.
By imposing a sixty-day deadline, the Senate bill would force the president to pick a side, something he clearly hates to do. If the budget bill goes through, as it seems destined to, the administration will be forced to decide who it is willing to offend. Environmentalists will be offended if Obama approves Keystone XL, while trade unions will be equally upset if he decided to kill it.
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