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Did U.S. Partisan Warfare Kill Keystone?

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Open partisan warfare between Democrats and Republicans, between the Obama administration and Congress, is underway and the latest clash is the Battle of Keystone, the fight over the Keystone XL pipeline.

By attaching a deadline for a decision to legislation extending the payroll tax holiday by two months, Congress tried to force President Obama to issue a presidential permit that would allow for the expansion of the pipeline where it crosses the U.S.-Canadian border. The president had previously announced that he would delay his decision until 2013.

President Obama today called Congress' bluff: he decided, and rejected the permit, on the grounds that he did not have adequate information in hand to approve the pipeline at present. This is consistent with his explanation for delaying his decision to 2013, despite the lengthy review and hearings process that has already taken place. Congress forced him to make a decision, but did not override his freedom to make that decision as he saw fit, and so he chose - as his aides had hinted he would - to say no.

Environmental groups will cheer the decision, and contribute heartily to re-elect the president. Republicans, though, will cheer as well: they have forced President Obama to reject a project that would create American jobs immediately and lower U.S. oil and gasoline prices over time. In elections this year, Republican candidates will cite this decision as proof that President Obama put special interests ahead of jobs and economic growth.

The importance of the Battle of Keystone will be measured by its significance in the larger partisan war that has raged in the United States for a decade or more. It has been a war from the Gingrich revolution to the battle to Impeach President Bill Clinton, from the appalling invective against President George W. Bush to the defection of Senator Jim Jeffords of Vermont to put the Senate in Democratic hands, to the election of President Obama who promised to change the tone of Washington through to the partisan passage of health care legislation and the 2010 election that signaled a Republican takeover of the House of Representatives.

Frustrated by his inability to pass climate legislation, President Obama turned a routine presidential permit decision into a political weapon. By delaying his decision, he allowed his allies in the environmental movement to raise funds and protest the pipeline in Nebraska and nationwide. The issue rallied a diverse coalition of local and national environmental activists and boosted their fundraising in a bleak, recessionary economy.

The president first delayed his decision on Keystone to the end of 2011, allowing additional time for hearings and study. Then, under pressure from his allies, he decided to add a delay until after the U.S. election, pledging to decide in 2013.

Republicans smelled weakness. Texas Governor and Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry came out with a strong endorsement of the Keystone pipeline, criticizing Obama for the delayed decision. Shortly thereafter, the entire field of GOP presidential candidates endorsed the Keystone pipeline and pledged to approve the permit if elected. The partisan battle lines were drawn.

House Republicans tried to attach language forcing the president to make a decision on the Keystone pipeline and ultimately succeeded in adding to the temporary payroll tax cut extension. The White House initially insisted it would veto any bill that included language forcing the president's hand on Keystone, but when the bill came to his desk President Obama signed it anyway.

The payroll tax cut extension is only good until the end of February, and as Congress returns this week following a recess for Martin Luther King Day, negotiations are about to begin on another payroll tax cut extension as well as another increase in the U.S. debt ceiling by more than $1 trillion. Obama's Keystone decision is a warning shot to Congressional Republicans intended to make the president look stronger for the battles to come.

Like picnickers at the Battle of Gettysburg, Canadians have a great view of the fighting and are not indifferent about the outcome - but for those doing the fighting, they are irrelevant. It is always hard, and sad, to repeat this, but this is all about us in the United States, and not about you in Canada. And whatever Prime Minister Harper, Premier Redford or Ambassador Doer thinks or says about the president's decision, it won't stop the war.

Only the 2012 election can do that now. President Obama's rejection of the Keystone permit can be reconsidered at any time by this president. Or by his successor.