For months, President Obama has said he wouldn't decide on whether to authorize construction of the Keystone XL pipeline—or sign a bill from Congress granting approval—until a legal challenge to the project in Nebraska was resolved.
On Friday, the Nebraska Supreme Court tossed out a lawsuit against the pipeline, and the timing could not have been better for Republicans. The court handed down its decision just hours before the U.S. House was set to vote on a bill authorizing the project, an early attempt by the new GOP Congress to pressure the president on the issue. Obama had threatened to veto the bill, but Republican leaders immediately jumped on the news to urge him to reconsider:
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell added his own statement, saying the ruling "provides the perfect opportunity for the president to change his unproductive posture ... and reverse his veto threat." Just about every other Republican congressional leader followed with a similar message.
Yet the White House quickly dashed the GOP's hopes that the ruling would move Obama to change his mind. The Associated Press quoted spokesman Eric Schultz as saying the president would veto the bill "regardless of the Nebraska ruling today." That's not surprising. In his public statements, the president has been increasingly dismissive of the Keystone project, suggesting that the possibility of creating a relatively small number of permanent jobs to move "Canadian oil" isn't worth the nearly 1,200-mile pipeline's contribution to carbon pollution. "I think that there’s been this tendency to really hype this thing as some magic formula to what ails the U.S. economy, and it’s hard to see on paper where exactly they’re getting that information from," Obama said during his year-end press conference. And the Nebraska court isn't the only thing holding up the president's decision—he's also waiting for the State Department to complete a lengthy review of the project. (Republicans counter that it's his State Department, and he could simply approve the pipeline if he wanted to.)
Politically, however, the ruling provides a badly needed break for Republicans, who have endured a rocky couple of weeks dominated by another failed conservative revolt against Speaker John Boehner, the resignation of one House member, and the news that another senior lawmakers once spoke to a white supremacist group. Party leaders also have struggled to sell the urgency of a new pipeline at a time when gas prices are plummeting. Their goal in the first few weeks is to pass a few modest bills with bipartisan support, showing voters their new congressional majority can govern while either pressuring Obama to go along or isolating him if he doesn't. Friday's ruling in Nebraska gives them a little bit of help.