Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu is in the political fight of her life at home in Louisiana, but her fate could be determined by a vote back in Washington. At least that was her plan in pushing a controversial vote to approve construction of the Keystone XL pipeline Tuesday evening.
That vote now hangs on the narrowest of margins, with Landrieu needing just one more Democrat to rally to her side. But so far, at least, she hasn’t been able to lock down a final vote to get past the 60-vote threshold needed to overcome President Obama's expected filibuster.
The pro-Keystone camp, which includes all 45 Republicans and 14 Democrats thus far, seems to be stuck at 59 votes, still needing one more Democrat to come on board. Most have already said publicly which way they’ll vote, making the path to 60 unclear.
Two more Democrats came out against the vote Tuesday morning. Spokespeople for Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin and Florida Sen. Bill Nelson told msnbc they would be voting no. Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), and Carl Levin (D-MI), three more potential yes votes, also told msnbc Monday that they too would vote against the bill.
Maine Independent Sen. Angus King came out against the pipeline Tuesday morning. "Congress is not -- nor should it be -- in the business of legislating the approval or disapproval of a construction project," the senator said in a statement. "And while I am frustrated that the president has refused to make a decision on the future of the pipeline, I don't believe that short-circuiting the process to circumvent his administration is in the best interest of the American people. I urge the president to make a decision soon, and, if he doesn't, I look forward to working with Congress to put a timeframe on this decision."
Still, the pro-pipeline camp remains confident. "At this point, I would say I think we'll get there, but again they're in the maybe column so we'll have to see tomorrow when we vote,” Sen. John Hoeven (R-ND), a chief sponsor of the Senate bill, told NBC News Monday night.
Landrieu herself told CNN that she feels “very comfortable" that she’ll get the extra vote.
If she succeeds, it might not actually mean much for the pipeline itself, which environmentalists have fought tooth and nail for over three years. Bills to approve Keystone have come to floor of both chambers of Congress several times the past, and President Obama has indicated he would veto this one.
But this will be the first time the Senate has voted on the pipeline since the midterm elections, where Republicans won big. Those gains won’t take effect until the new Congress is sworn in in January, when Republicans are almost certain to take up and pass the pipeline again if it hasn’t been approved already.
Instead, the more important consequence of Tuesday’s vote will likely be on Landrieu’s December runoff election against Republican Rep. Bill Cassidy, who is ironically the sponsor of the House version of the bill to approve construction of the pipeline.
Landrieu hopes winning on the pipeline will score her points in her petroleum-rich state, and show voters that she can use her seniority in the Senate to get things done for Louisiana. But many political observers think Keystone will not be enough to close the double-digit gap between her and Cassidy. National Democrats have largely abandoned the state, and some Democrats appear unwilling to take a bad vote if it has little chance of saving Landrieu.
Environmentalists’ opposition is not as much about the pipeline itself, but the fact that it would lead to the extraction of oil from tar sands in Canada, which is much dirtier than typical oil. The pipeline is working its way through a review process in the Obama administration, which has final say over its construction.
Obama’s veto threat is not about the merits of the pipeline itself, but the process. He sees congressional action here as an infringement on his executive prerogative. There are also outstanding legal issues, including a court case in Nebraska about the proposed route of the pipeline.
Environmentalists have managed to delay construction of the pipeline thus far, and while they would prefer for Obama to kill Keystone outright, they’ll be happy with another delay. "The longer this trickles out, the longer this hangs out the, and state issues remain unresolved" the better, said Melinda Pierce of the Sierra Club. "Every day that a decision is forthcoming is an opportunity to take our case out to the public."