Now, Senate Republicans, joined by their House counterparts, plan to force Obama's hand. Mitch McConnell has promised a vote to approve Keystone when he takes over from Harry Reid as Senate majority leader.
Republican Sen. John Hoeven of North Dakota told National Journal on Tuesday night that a stand-alone bill to greenlight the project would come up "right away" once Republicans take the majority.
Obama has not left many clues as to where he stands. The president has said he will allow the pipeline to be built only if it does not significantly worsen carbon pollution. And in January, a State Department review of the project essentially concluded that it would not. Environmentalists contest the report, but that calculation could provide Obama political cover if he opts to sign legislation to approve Keystone.
The White House has leveled multiple veto threats against legislation passed by the Republican-controlled House to expedite Keystone construction. But each time, the administration has declined to weigh in on the merits of the project, saying instead that Congress should not interfere with State's review of border-crossing project. That review has by now been largely concluded, but Secretary of State John Kerry is still slated to make a final recommendation on the project.
Despite the potential pitfalls, high-ranking Republican Party members believe the president will feel pressure to OK the pipeline. "We will pass the Keystone pipeline," Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus told MSNBC on Tuesday about a GOP Senate agenda. The RNC chief went on to say that the president will approve the bill, arguing that Obama will be "boxed in."
A majority of the public backs the Keystone project: 65 percent of Americans support Keystone XL's construction, according to an ABC/Washington Post survey released in March.
And Hoeven is also optimistic that Obama will approve Keystone legislation. "When you think about the bipartisan backing we have for this, the votes we just picked up, and jobs this will create, why wouldn't he say yes?" the senator told National Journal.
But green groups aren't ready to let Republicans have the last word. Environmentalists are planning to dial up the pressure on the White House to reject the project after the midterm dust has settled. "The basic strategy is to make sure that Keystone gets put on the front burner after this election," said Karthik Ganapathy, U.S. communications manager for the California-based environmental group 350.org.
If Obama does veto pro-Keystone legislation, Republicans are not likely to stop there. Hoeven said that after attempting to move the measure on its own, Senate leadership would likely attach approval legislation to a broader energy package or must-pass spending bills.
The President Is Likely to Veto Any Attempt to Weaken the Climate Rule
Look for the new Republican majority to take dead aim at EPA rules to limit carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants—the central pillar of the White House climate agenda for Obama's second term.