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Sen. Landrieu Takes Up Keystone Cause Ahead Of Runoff Election


The Senate is now voting on whether to allow construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. President Obama has repeatedly made his concerns about the pipeline known. But Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana has been trying to collect enough support in her caucus to pass the bill. She's fighting for a fourth term in a tough runoff next month.

NPR's Ailsa Chang joins us from the Capitol to talk about the bill's chances. And Ailsa, first, let's remind everybody what this project would be. It's more than a 1,600 miles of pipeline starting in Western Canada winding down to the Gulf of Mexico. So why don't you go over what the arguments have been for and against Keystone? How are Senators framing the debate?

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: Basically, jobs versus the environment. Those who support the pipeline, meaning Republicans - some Democrats in business and labor groups - say the project will lead to thousands of new jobs. But those on the other side are citing climate change concerns that extracting this oil would release more greenhouse gases - that there could be disastrous oil spills. Up until now, Senate Democrats have not wanted to bring this up for a vote. But after the election, House Speaker John Boehner and Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader-to-be, said they'd be definitely bringing this up for a vote anyway.

BLOCK: And Senate Democrats, as we mentioned, are hoping this could help Senator Mary Landrieu. She's been a strong advocate for Keystone, and she is heading toward that runoff election in a couple weeks.

CHANG: That's right.

BLOCK: How much of a difference you think this issue makes in her runoff next month?

CHANG: Well, on one hand, she can use Keystone as an example of her effectiveness in a now paralyzed Senate. You know, she can say look, I got the Senate to finally vote on this pipeline - that she's this moderate who can work effectively with both sides. She says Louisiana voters would definitely appreciate this.


SENATOR MARY LANDRIEU: One of the things that they know that's not clear to people here is that it takes both parties working together, compromising to get the job done for them.

CHANG: But her clout will be diminished now, right? Now that Republicans have taken over the Senate come January, she won't be chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee anymore. And that was a big selling point for her on the campaign trail - that as head of the head energy committee, she would deliver even more to oil-rich Louisiana, and that just won't be the case anymore.

BLOCK: Now, Louisiana is a state where President Obama is deeply unpopular. Does Mary Landrieu have a calculus that if she disagrees with the president on this issue that that helps her in this runoff? Perhaps - I mean her opponent Bill Cassidy, a House Republican, has been painting her on the campaign trail as someone who agrees way too often with Obama. But one of Landrieu's senior aides told me that they're actually trying to be very careful about not overselling Keystone as an example of distance between Landrieu and the president because they don't want to risk alienating African-American voters whom she'll need in December.

I mean, ultimately, Keystone could really just be a wash for Landrieu and Cassidy. They've both sponsored basically identical bills on this. It's really reminiscent of what happened with flood insurance earlier this year, if you'll remember. Both Landrieu and Cassidy sponsored similar bills to reform the national flood insurance program. They both claimed credit for the legislation on the campaign trail. And now we see the same thing happening with Keystone.

BLOCK: Well, assuming this Keystone bill passes the Senate today, what happens then? Has President Obama said he will veto it?

CHANG: He hasn't explicitly said he would veto it, but he's made it very clear he's not a fan of the project. He thinks the pipeline won't create all the jobs that Republicans say it will. He also thinks the State Department needs to finish its environmental impact study before the project can be approved. And the president doesn't think the pipeline will do anything to lower U.S. gas prices. As of now, it's not clear this bill will even pass the Senate.

BLOCK: OK, NPR's Ailsa Chang on Capitol Hill. Ailsa, thanks so much.

CHANG: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: November 17, 2014 at 10:00 PM MST
In the audio of this story we incorrectly state that Sen. Mary Landrieu has been in the U.S. Senate for 12 years. Sen. Landrieu has been a senator for 18 years.