Mitch McConnell: Approving Keystone XL Is First Order of Business Next Year

Ascendant Republicans will quickly launch an energy policy battle in the new Congress.

Keystone Pipeline (National Journal)

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday that approving the Keystone XL oil-sands pipeline will be the first item on the agenda for Republicans when they take control of the Senate next year.

McConnell's plan sets up a quick political collision with President Obama, who has repeatedly criticized legislation to force his hand on the pipeline but stopped short of a veto threat.

McConnell told reporters in the Capitol that the first bill he plans to hold a vote on in the next Senate will be legislation to green-light the long-stalled project, which would haul heavy crude from Canada's oil sands to Gulf Coast refineries. The Senate is expected to have a filibuster-proof pro-Keystone XL majority when the vote arrives.

"We'll be starting next year with a job-creating bill that enjoys significant bipartisan support. The first item up in the new Senate will be the Keystone XL pipeline," McConnell said. "We'll move forward and hopefully be able to pass a very important job-creating bill early in the season."

Keystone XL has been under federal review for more than six years as the administration weighs whether to approve the controversial project, which has become a lightning rod in a broader debate over climate change and energy security.

The pipeline is currently pending a final decision from the State Department. After that, Obama will have final say over whether it gets built. The administration put its review of the project on hold in April, however, amid concerns over the legality of its route through Nebraska.

A Senate vote that is now likely to come as soon as January could speed up the timeline on a final decision from the president.

The House of Representatives has already passed legislation approving the project, but the Democratic-controlled Senate has so far shot down attempts at approval.

In November, the Senate came close to passing a pro-Keystone XL bill, an effort led by Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, but the push ultimately fell one vote short of the required 60 votes for passage.

Senate Republicans have vowed swift passage of pro-Keystone legislation in the next Congress when they control the majority.

McConnell's plan means the Senate could soon see its first freewheeling battle over energy policy in years. McConnell said that he won't thwart lawmakers from either party who want to try to amend the bill.

"I hope that senators on both sides will offer energy-related amendments. There will be no effort to try to micromanage the amendment process," he told reporters in the Capitol on Tuesday.

The White House did not issue a veto threat when legislation approving Keystone came close to passing the Senate last month. But Obama has seemed increasingly reluctant to say "yes" to construction of the pipeline in recent weeks.

Obama has long said he will not approve the project if it is found to substantially increase the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. A State Department review of the pipeline said that it would only have a minimal impact on the environment. But in an interview last week with Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert, the president sounded skeptical.

"We've got to make sure that it's not adding to the problem of carbon and climate change," Obama said when asked about the pipeline. "These young people are going to have to live in a world where we already know temperatures are going up, and Keystone is a potential contributor to that."

The president also threw cold water on the argument made by Keystone supporters that the pipeline would be a major job creator. "We have to examine [the environmental impact], and we have to weigh that against the amount of jobs it's actually going to create, which aren't a lot," Obama said.

Ben Geman and Sarah Mimms contributed to this article