Keystone XL supporters' narrow defeat in the Senate this week illustrates one of the basic rules of politics - you don't give away something in return for nothing. Never.
In this case, President Obama and the Democratic leadership held the line against KXL despite what seems to be its growing inevitability. While some pipeline opponents crowed that they had achieved a historic victory, it's more likely that the vote merely teed up a grand bargain - green-lighting KXL early in 2015 in return for a Republican truce on the EPA's proposed regulations of CO2 emissions from power plants. As I've written here before, this could be a decent deal. Or to put it another way, it would be the least bad outcome available considering the Republicans' ability to do major damage to Obama's climate agenda.
The key to is to note that the Senate almost certainly will vote on KXL again once the new GOP majority takes office in January. At that point, approval of the pipeline project is a foregone conclusion, although backers probably still won't have the 67 votes necessary to override a presidential veto.
Reuters connects some of the dots:
After years of fighting over TransCanada's crude oil pipeline from Canada, a Keystone deal is not entirely out of the question, sources inside the administration and others close to the White House told Reuters on Tuesday.
With the Senate's narrow defeat of a Keystone bill on Tuesday, Obama avoided the awkward position of possibly vetoing a bill supported by members of his own Democratic party. But the issue will come up again soon after the new year when Republicans, who already control the House of Representatives, take charge of the Senate as well.
Any deal would have to yield concrete gains for Obama on his agenda. Obama also likely would insist on making an executive decision on the $8 billion pipeline from Canada, rather than letting Congress approve the permit, sources said.
"Whatever the president decides, I expect it will be driven by the bottom line on carbon pollution, not by symbolism," one former administration official told Reuters.
Obama wants to make headway on slowing climate change during his last two years in office, but he has made it clear that new rules to curb carbon emissions from power plants and a global agreement on climate change are far more meaningful in the big picture than the fate of the pipeline.
Sources close to the White House say Obama believes that both pipeline opponents and proponents have exaggerated the significance of their claims about the pipeline, turning it into a political symbol.
From Obama's perspective, his logical offer to Republicans is this: I give you KXL, you agree to lay off my power plant regs. ThinkProgress recently summarized the extraordinarily high stakes for Obama's (and the world's) climate legacy:
Just days after the midterm elections, Republicans are picking the big targets at which to aim their new majorities, and the federal effort to cut carbon emissions is one of them.Earlier this year, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) unveiled regulations cutting greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from new and existing power plants, respectively. President Obama has laid out a plan to honor the United States’ international commitment to reduce its GHG emissions 17 percent below their 2005 levels by 2020, and those two regulations form the core of that effort.
They also appear to be near the top of the list of things the Republicans’ wish to dismantle, once they come into Congress in January with a newly-solidified grip on the House of Representatives and a new majority in the Senate.
On Thursday, Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY) — who will likely become Senate Majority Leader when the new Congress enters in January — said he feels a “deep responsibility” to stop the power plant regulations, and that his top priority will be “to try to do whatever I can to get the EPA reined in.” Then on Sunday morning, newly-minted Senator Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) told Fox News Sunday’s Chris Wallace that she will be “extremely aggressive” in her attempts to roll back the EPA rules.
“The president’s policies are disenfranchising my part of the country,” Capito continued. “We’ve been picked as a loser, and I’m not going to stand for it. Rolling back the EPA regulations is the way to do it.”
According to a Sunday story in The Hill, the Republicans’ ambitions also extend well beyond EPA’s power plant regulations. “Republican lawmakers are planning an all-out assault on Obama’s environmental agenda, including rules on mercury and other air toxics from power plants, limits on ground-level ozone that causes smog, mountaintop mining restrictions and the EPA’s attempt to redefine its jurisdiction over streams and ponds,” the outlet reported. The Interior Department is also in the crosshairs, with rules due to come soon on hydraulic fracturing on public land and protecting streams from mining waste.”
Would the Republicans accept the deal? Maybe, maybe not. At the very least, it could spark an interesting battle within the GOP between the oil and coal lobbies - the former prioritizing KXL, while the latter obsessed with stopping Obama's "war on coal."