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Obama eyes possible trade on Keystone pipeline

The White House might accept Keystone in exchange for something else. The trouble is, Republicans don't like to compromise.
Demonstrators carry a replica of a pipeline during a march against the Keystone XL pipeline in Washington, in this February 17, 2013 file photo.
Demonstrators carry a replica of a pipeline during a march against the Keystone XL pipeline in Washington, in this February 17, 2013 file photo.
The Senate is expected to vote today on a House GOP bill authorizing the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, and by all appearances, the vote will be close. Proponents appear to be one-vote shy of the 60 votes they need to advance the bill, but there are still a few hours of arm-twisting remaining.
Ultimately, however, it probably won't matter -- President Obama is likely to veto the measure if it reaches his desk, and there's simply no possibility of Keystone supporters finding enough votes to override.
The policy will remain a top Republican priority in the new GOP-led Congress, and in an interesting twist, the New York Times reports that the White House might consider a deal.

[T]he events of this week suggest that after the expected veto, Mr. Obama may eventually approve the pipeline, which would run from the oil sands of Alberta to the Gulf Coast. The project is anathema to the environmentalists who are part of the president's political base. White House advisers have repeatedly said that they do not intend to issue a final decision until a Nebraska court issues a verdict on the route of the pipeline through that state. But that decision is expected to come as soon as January, the same month that an incoming Republican-majority Congress can be expected to send another Keystone bill to the president's desk -- one that could be within a few votes of a veto-proof majority. If that is the case, people familiar with the president's thinking say that in 2015 he might use Keystone as a bargaining chip: He would offer Republicans approval of it in exchange for approval of one of his policies.

In theory, this raises the interesting prospect of some kind of bipartisan compromise. There's just one problem: for the last six years, Republicans haven't been willing to accept any concessions at all.
There is, of course, more than one kind of compromise. There's a split-the-difference style in which rivals stop haggling and agree to some middle point between two poles. Republicans have occasionally been willing to strike these kinds of deals, as evidenced by the fiscal-cliff mess in December 2012.
Then there's the bargain-style compromise, which used to be common in Washington policymaking: "I'm not crazy about your idea and you're not crazy about mine, but I'll grudgingly back your proposal if you do the same for my proposal."
This is the one Republicans find intolerable -- the idea of supporting a Democratic policy they disapprove of, even in exchange for a conservative priority, is simply a step they've been unwilling to take.
In this case, they want Keystone and they want Obama to give it to them. The idea of some policy tradeoff would require a willingness to compromise that GOP lawmakers simply never exhibit.
From Obama's perspective, Keystone is not the be-all, end-all provision of an energy policy, so the fact that the president might be willing to trade it away doesn't come as too big a surprise. But what could he reasonably expect to gain in return from Republicans who have an ideological objection to cooperation and compromise?
I can't think of anything GOP leaders would be willing to offer. For six years, they haven't offered anything, so it's quite possible they no longer even remember how the game is played. That muscle atrophied a long time ago.
What's more, Jon Chait argues Republicans may not actually want Keystone built, so much as they want to complain about Keystone not being built.

The trouble is, there's little reason to think Republicans actually care about approving Keystone. Its value to them lies entirely in its use as a talking point. [...] You have to ask yourself what Republicans would get out of the pipeline. It doesn't carry much benefit for American energy firms -- the benefits would flow to Canadian oil companies, who would otherwise have to find more expensive means to transport their product.... If Obama approves the Keystone XL pipeline, then Republicans pretty much have no jobs plan any more.

The idea of a trade is intriguing, but the White House probably shouldn't get its hopes up.
Postscript: If the president is willing to use the policy as a bargaining chip, it's worth noting that it would represent an evolution in Obama's approach. For much of his first term, the president tried good-faith gestures, giving Republicans what they wanted -- offshore development, nuclear plants, increased border security -- hoping the policies would engender goodwill and a spirit of cooperation. It never worked. Republicans would always effectively respond, "Thank you for the concession, but we still refuse to work with you on any issue."
The fact that Obama is now looking at trade opportunities suggests he's adopted a more realistic posture.