By KATHRYN A. WOLFE and DARREN GOODE | 5/10/12 12:31 PM EDT Updated: 5/10/12 5:30 PM EDT
Senior Democrats backing the Keystone XL pipeline and some of its labor allies really want to see the pipeline built, but they appear to want a surface transportation bill more.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee ranking member Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.), who are avowed supporters of the pipeline, have signaled that they aren’t interested in seeing Keystone language included if its means the death of a multiyear transportation bill.
Keystone will not weigh much on conference proceedings, “because I think this conference should move ahead, pro- or anti-Keystone,” Rahall told POLITICO. “It should not be the stumbling block that stops this conference from acting, because we have to act so quickly.”
And, he said, most fellow transportation conferees feel the same way.
“My discussions, without naming names, is that nobody wants this to stop the transportation conference report from going forward as quickly as possible — pro or con,” Rahall said.
Baucus has also hinted several times that he isn’t interested in killing the transportation bill over Keystone.
“Nothing’s more important than jobs,” Baucus said last month when reporters asked him whether Keystone belongs in the final transportation conference bill. “There’s all kinds of ways to get jobs. And the highway bill is critical. Passage is critical. And I think the Keystone pipeline also would help create more jobs. But frankly, I’m going to make sure we get a net jobs increase.”
It’s a sentiment that extends to even some of the most fervent union backers of the pipeline.
“Of course, we want to see Keystone be built,” Laborers’ International Union of North America spokeswoman Jaclyn Houser said. “But we also want to pass a highway bill, and Keystone should not be a roadblock or impediment.”
“We wouldn’t want to jeopardize either measure politically,” she added.
House Republicans voted to authorize Keystone XL as part of a 90-day transportation extension that led to the conference talks.
“Keystone XL has undergone extensive environmental review,” House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) said at Tuesday’s meeting, the first public gathering of the conference. “The time for delay is over.”
But Upton and other House Republicans didn’t appear to hold the Democrats’ feet to the fire at the meeting and did not explicitly demand that the pipeline language be included.
The meeting “set a good tone for the conference,” a House GOP aide said of the overall talks. “If both sides had come in and started to argue over scope, or if the Senate had harassed the House over H.R. 7 or the House had read the Senate a laundry list of concerns with [the transportation bill], the conference would have started with tension and negativity.”
Instead, the aide said, “we saw members express commitment to their principles and set out their priorities but with a recognition that it was important to get something done and that getting a conference report was achievable.”
And the political heat on conference members like Baucus and Rahall may not be as strong anymore given the support major unions are giving President Barack Obama, even if they are peeved at his rejection of the pipeline project.
Just as the desire to get an overall transportation bill legislatively trumps congressional authorization of Keystone XL, pipeline-backing unions that had once threatened to keep boots off the ground for Obama are now rallying hard to keep Mitt Romney out of the White House thanks to the Republican’s views on Davis-Bacon prevailing wage requirements and other top union issues.
“There’s a clear choice. And it’s not Romney,” Houser said. “We’ll be out there, fighting like we have been in the past.”
In any case, Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) said trying to predict the Keystone outcome through vote-counting is a fruitless quest.
“This will be decided at the leadership level, not by individual votes in the conference. It’s something Reid and Boehner have to work out,” DeFazio said.