Mary Landrieu begged her fellow Democrats to back legislation approving the Keystone XL pipeline, looking for a lifeline in her long-shot bid to keep her Senate seat. But on Tuesday night, she fell one vote short.
The Senate rejected an attempt to get cloture on the measure, with 41 senators—all Democrats or independents—voting to stall the measure.
It's a victory for environmental groups and their Democratic allies, who oppose the oil-sands pipeline because of its contributions to global warming. And it saves President Obama a headache: The White House opposed the bill but will be relieved not to have to veto it.
For Landrieu, it's another setback at an already low moment. Weeks away from Louisiana's Dec. 6 runoff election and trailing Rep. Bill Cassidy in the polls, Landrieu had hoped to use her steering of the measure through the Senate to infuse new life into her campaign. She got a boost from her party's top brass when they agreed to hold a stand-alone Keystone vote, a step they'd been loathe to take in the past.
And going into the vote, Landrieu had 59 assured supporters for her motion, but—despite her assurances she could break a filibuster—it was never clear where she'd get No. 60. Democratic Majority Whip Dick Durbin was seen as one of Landrieu's last options, but he voted 'no' on the bill.
Durbin kept the Senate guessing until the moment he voted. "I am headed to the floor. You will know in a moment," he said when flocked by reporters in the Capitol ahead of the vote. Asked if there was any reason he wasn't revealing his intentions, Durbin replied: "just ... let me breathe."
After the vote, Landrieu insisted that the loss did not undercut her argument that Louisiana voters should elect her for her clout in the upper chamber, telling reporters that the very existence of the lame-duck Keystone battle was proof of her credentials.
"Only a senior member that has been here as long as I have could recognize the opportunity, the opportunity when Mitch McConnell was focused on other issues and Harry Reid was going back to his same old agenda," said Landrieu, who heads the Senate's Energy panel and—if reelected—would likely serve as the panel's top Democrat. "I said, you know what, I think it is time to have this debate. So my experience is still valuable, my chairmanship of the Energy Committee until the end of this Congress is very valuable to the people of Louisiana."
But Cassidy's camp pounced on the vote. "Senator Mary Landrieu's failure to pass the Keystone XL Pipeline this evening is a perfect snapshot of her time as Chair of the Energy Committee—a failure," a Cassidy spokesman said in a statement sent immediately following the vote. "It is clear that Senator Landrieu is unable to stand up for Louisiana effectively."
Cassidy's statement also noted that the House passed a measure to approve the pipeline last week.
Legislation green-lighting the oil-sands project is certain to come to Obama's desk next year, however, when Republicans take the reins in the Senate. Soon-to-be Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has pledged to move swiftly to authorize the pipeline.
TransCanada's project would carry hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil each day from oil-sands projects in Alberta, Canada, to refineries along the Gulf Coast. It would also carry oil from the booming Bakken formation in North Dakota.
Keystone is a big priority for Republicans and industry groups that have lobbied aggressively in favor of the pipeline. But it's a political headache for Obama, and for Democrats in general, who are divided over the project.
Many labor unions back Keystone, but environmentalists—another pillar of Obama's political bas—bitterly oppose it and have mounted an aggressive campaign in recent years that has included numerous protests.
The White House did not issue a formal veto threat on the project, but the president hinted in the days leading up to the vote that he would veto the legislation.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Tuesday, "It certainly is a piece of legislation that the president doesn't support."
The Obama administration has spent six years weighing the project, and the president has repeatedly said in recent days that he wants to let the review play out. The president also made critical comments about the project on his recent trip to Asia, buoying environmentalists.
"I have to constantly push back against this idea that somehow the Keystone pipeline is either this massive jobs bill for the United States, or is somehow lowering gas prices," he told reporters in Myanmar four days ago.
Obama has also said that he will not approve Keystone unless he's certain that building the project would not significantly increase carbon emissions.
Republicans, who have said the project is an economic win that will boost U.S. energy security, used the debate to increase political pressure on the White House over Keystone.
"I say to President Obama, time is up, and the excuses have run out. It is time for you, Mr. President, to make a decision," said Sen. John Barrasso, a Wyoming Republican who is part of the GOP leadership team, during the floor debate Tuesday. Republican Sen. John Thune, who is also in leadership, noted that the pipeline has bipartisan support in Congress, and he said the Keystone opponents are "members of the far-left wing of the Democratic Party."
Environmentalists and Democrats against the project argue that Keystone will worsen global warming by serving as a catalyst for rapid expansion of carbon-intensive oil-sands production in Canada.
"To protect the planet from catastrophic global warming, we need to leave four-fifths of the identified conventional fossil-fuel reserves in the ground," said Sen. Jeff Merkley, an Oregon Democrat, ahead of the vote. "But building the Keystone pipeline would open the faucet to rapid exploitation of a massive new unconventional reserve—that is, the tar sands—making it much less likely for human civilization to succeed in meeting that carbon budget that is so important to our future economic and environmental world."
But a major State Department environmental analysis published in January generally rebutted claims that the pipeline is a linchpin for growing oil-sands production.
It concluded that construction of Keystone—one of several new oil-sands pipelines that companies are proposing—is unlikely to affect the rate of oil-sands expansion. That's because growing use of railways to move oil can pick up the slack, even though moving oil by rail is more expensive.
However, State's analysis also predicts that if no new pipelines are built to handle expanded oil-sands production, oil prices remaining in the $65-$75 per barrel range could curtail production, but the study calls this unlikely. Oil prices have been falling for months, and West Texas Intermediate crude oil is currently trading at around $75 per barrel.
The Energy Department's statistical arm this month estimated that oil will average $78 per barrel in 2015, which is well below its previous forecast.
Sarah Mimms contributed to this article