WASHINGTON - A showdown over the Keystone XL pipeline is set for early in the new year, with the Canadian oil project having been anointed as the No. 1 priority of the new Republican-dominated Congress.
A Keystone XL bill will be the first item in the Senate after the new Congress convenes on Jan. 6, the next leader of the chamber, Republican Mitch McConnell, announced Tuesday.
McConnell also said he'll allow amendments to the bill. That means it could become a venue for horse-trading, as lawmakers from different parties pack it with their own priorities, and increase its chances of becoming law.
"We'll hope that senators on both sides will offer energy-related amendments, but there'll be no effort to try to micromanage the amendment process," McConnell said.
"And we'll move forward and hopefully be able to pass a very important, job-creating bill early in the session."
The final decision still ultimately rests with President Barack Obama.
He still holds two distinct powers over the project: he could veto a bill, or he could also choose whether to approve it through the normal administrative permitting process.
He's urged lawmakers not to get involved. Obama says the proper procedure is to let his administration complete its own review, which could conclude any time after a Nebraska court decision expected as early as this Friday.
The White House has never clearly indicated, however, what it would do with a bill. A spokesman for Obama, when asked recently whether he would participate in negotiations with lawmakers over Keystone, wouldn't rule it out.
A pro-pipeline senator offered some thoughts Tuesday about how to persuade Obama to sign it.
Mary Landrieu, who came just one vote short of pushing a pipeline bill through the Senate last month, said lawmakers need to include some of the president's priorities in the legislation in order to increase the chances of passage.
"I would strongly recommend that it get paired with something that the president would not want to veto, like an increase in the minimum wage or potentially a strong bipartisan energy efficiency piece," she told the congressional newspaper, The Hill.
But the lawmaker, who was defeated in a re-election bid for her Louisiana seat, offered her own gloomy prediction for pipeline advocates: ''It most certainly is going to pass (Congress). The problem is the president will likely veto it and Republicans still don't have a veto-proof majority.''
More progressive Democrats than Landrieu are placing huge pressure on the president to reject Keystone XL, illustrated when Obama recorded a segment for ''The Colbert Report'' recently and the young studio audience booed a mention of the pipeline.
On the other hand, polls suggest the general American public supports the project.
A cabinet member who was asked about Keystone XL during a North American energy summit this week wouldn't say a word about the politically sensitive issue.
Republicans, meanwhile, are divided over a number of issues like immigration and major spending decisions — but they're solidly united in favour of the pipeline.
Asked what his second priority would be after a Keystone bill, McConnell said he hadn't reached that decision yet.