In a moment of high political drama Wednesday, supporters of the long-stalled, Canadian-linked oil project demanded an imminent vote in the United States Congress.
They appeared to get their wish. A key vote is expected early next week.
The results of the U.S. midterm elections had prompted widespread expectation that the new Republican-dominated, oil-friendly Congress might pursue the project upon its January swearing-in.
But it's happened at an unexpected speed, from an unexpected place. Within minutes of Congress returning for its first day of business following the election, the Senate's more conservative Democrats began pushing for a vote during the so-called lame-duck period and they initially tried to make it happen by Thursday.
The kindling for this scorching pace of activity appeared to be a Louisiana runoff election. The Democrats hope to avoid losing yet another seat in next month's runoff, and stave off a final electoral gut-punch after last week's memorable beating.
The duelling candidates in that Louisiana race spent Wednesday trying to out-pipeline each other.
A Senate bill was introduced by Keystone-backing Democrat Mary Landrieu, who has previously appeared in public with Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird to promote the project.
Equivalent legislation was introduced in the House of Representatives by her Republican challenger — congressman Bill Cassidy, whom polls suggest is likely to win next month's runoff and get a promotion to the upper chamber.
"It needs to get done right now," Landrieu said as she introduced the bill on the Senate floor, with a map of the proposed pipeline perched up beside her.
"Not in January, not in February, not in March."
She said elections have consequences, and one of the consequences of last week's Republican romp was that the Congress will easily have enough votes to pass the pipeline.
Landrieu is the clear underdog in a fight to retain her seat in a one-on-one runoff election, after she failed to capture 50 per cent of the vote on Nov. 4 against a divided field of conservative rivals.
Pipeline supporters have long expressed frustration that the project has enough votes to pass Congress but has been consistently stalled by the Democratic leadership in the Senate.
Reports now suggest the party's lame-duck Senate leader, Harry Reid, may step out of the way and allow a vote next Tuesday. Some Democrats have apparently concluded that a Keystone bill may be inevitable, so it might as well happen while there's still some hope of saving Landrieu's seat.
Environmental organizations were mortified. The green groups that comprise some of the most energetic foot soldiers in progressive U.S. politics pleaded with Democrats to desist.
They noted that President Barack Obama had just made a big announcement with China on greenhouse-gas reductions, and said Canadian bitumen would erode that progress.
"Mary Landrieu should know better than to undermine President Obama's climate goals and drag the Democratic Party into climate denial, solely for the fading chance of avoiding another thumping at the ballot box," said a statement from 350 Action spokesman Karthik Ganapathy.
"This vote is a farce because Keystone XL is a decision for the president, not Congress."
Obama could veto any bill passed by Congress. It's unclear what he'd do on Keystone XL, as he'd be squeezed between public support for the project and staunch opposition by his party's environmentalist base.
Some of Keystone's opponents have also warned that there could be constitutional lawsuits if Obama is pushed to approve the pipeline under unconventional methods.
The cross-border pipeline approval process is generally led by the State Department — not Congress.
Landrieu's congressional colleagues either remained silent Wednesday or expressed support for her. Some joined her on the Senate floor to gush with enthusiasm for Canada, and for Canadian oil.
"Canada is the best and largest trading partner for 35 states," said West Virginia's Joe Manchin, also a pipeline-friendly Democrat.
"If we have the best partner — the best ally that we've ever had and could imagine — working with us to develop this product that the whole world seems to need and want ... why not have control of it?"
The administration's own environmental reviews had concluded that Keystone wouldn't mean higher emissions, but just move oil more efficiently than trains, Manchin said.
Jon Tester of Montana said: "Building the pipeline means more business with Canada — our friend to the north — and less business with the Middle East, folks who really don't like us."
He said the election made it clear that Americans wanted their politicians to compromise, work together, and get things done. He said they also want a stronger economy, with good-paying jobs, and argued that Keystone XL could address all of those needs.
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