01/29/2015 01:38 EST | Updated 03/31/2015 05:59 EDT

Keystone XL wins a pyrrhic victory in the U.S. Congress

WASHINGTON - Long-suffering supporters of the Keystone XL pipeline won a moral victory in the U.S. Congress on Thursday — but that's about all they won.

A bill to build the oil pipeline from Canada was approved by the Senate for the first time in the almost seven-year struggle over one of the best-known, most-debated pieces of oil infrastructure in memory.

Previous efforts to approve the pipeline crashed into the notoriously high hurdle for getting anything through the U.S. Congress's upper chamber. Thanks to a newly empowered Republican majority, the legislation finally cleared that three-fifths requirement Thursday in a vote of 62-36.

Now the reality check: It's still not a law. It stands almost no chance of becoming one. And that's because it didn't get the 67 votes required to overcome a presidential veto.

The indispensability of those final few votes was driven home when a spokesman for President Barack Obama once again promised a veto.

"Our position on the Keystone legislation is well-known," White House spokesman John Earnest said a few hours before the vote.

"(If) the legislation that passed the House also passes the Senate, then the president won't sign it."

The president's position is that Congress has no business deciding what infrastructure gets approved to cross the U.S. border. The White House points out that courts have consistently found that such decisions belong to the president's cabinet.

And the final decision on that should be announced soon. Under the standard regulatory process, federal departments have until Feb. 2 to weigh in and an announcement could follow quickly.

The even worse news for Keystone proponents is that the project is now being sucked into a deep partisan wedge — and appears at risk of getting stuck in a Democrat-Republican stalemate.

Canadian diplomats have desperately tried to keep it from being pulled into that partisan chasm. At every available opportunity, ambassador Gary Doer has mentioned, or appeared in public with, those very few members of Obama's party who vocally support Keystone.

But they couldn't have been too pleased with an email blast from Obama's party headquarters Thursday. The Democratic National Committee sent out a fundraising-type message with the headline: "Stand Against Keystone XL."

It ridiculed Republicans for making Keystone XL their first order of business in the new Congress. Democrats like progressive populist Elizabeth Warren have heaped scorn on their decision to make a foreign company's pipeline the No. 1 legislative priority after the midterm elections.

Republicans defended their decision after the chamber passed the bill — whose official number was S.1.

"For jobs in this country, for energy security, for good trade relationships with our neighbour in Canada," Alaska's Lisa Murkowski told the Senate, right after the vote.

"For all the right reasons it was important that we pass this legislation."

Republicans have already suggested they'll try again — perhaps by combining a Keystone provision with something dear to Obama like infrastructure spending.

Otherwise, the seven-year Keystone saga faces two more twists: an inevitable veto announcement in the next few days and a decision on the merits, perhaps a few days later.