Environmentalists know they will lose Friday's House vote to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, but they're scrambling around Capitol Hill with a humbling new goal: Stop a bipartisan landslide.
Republicans have voted nine times since 2011 in favor of the pipeline sending heavy crude from Canada to the Gulf Coast. But environmentalists had Harry Reid as Senate majority leader to keep most anything from reaching President Obama's desk. So House votes, while annoying to environmentalists, were largely symbolic. Now, the rules of the game are different: The House matters.
The biggest fear among greens is that things could get out of hand if enough Democrats join with the expanded Republican majority and bring the pro-Keystone caucus close to a figure that could withstand Obama's threatened veto. And the more lopsided a House vote is, the more difficult it becomes to keep Senate Democratic moderates and lawmakers viewed as potential fence-sitters such as Christopher Coons of Delaware, Bill Nelson of Florida, and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota from supporting the Keystone bill.
"We can't hemorrhage major losses in the House because that would send a message to the Senate that's much harder to rebut," an environmental lobbyist working on Keystone XL said.
No doubt, greens are anxious. Keystone XL has become a flash point in a much broader national debate over climate change and American energy security. Environmental groups have long argued that if the pipeline is built it would accelerate global warming and speed oil-sands development. And opposition has become a powerful rallying cry for the environmental movement as it attempts to flex its muscle in Washington and across the U.S.
"I think everyone is a little bit worried," the lobbyist said. "The stakes are so high it would just be crushing for the community that have invested. For all the activists and for the president, it would be devastating. So right now, yes, I think the odds are in our favor [to sustain a veto]. Logic and common sense tell you we have the numbers on our side but people are still worried. We have a lot to lose."
Another factor adding to the fray is that environmentalists are working to shore up anti-Keystone votes in the freshman class, a host of lawmakers they have never dealt with before.
Several environmentalists said they are focusing their attention on three freshman Democrats in particular: Reps. Brad Ashford of Nebraska, Debbie Dingell of Michigan, and Gwen Graham of Florida, all of whom have yet to indicate how they plan to vote on the pro-Keystone XL bill. None of their offices returned a request for comment on Wednesday.
Apart from the behind-the-scenes lobbying taking place on Capitol Hill, environmentalists are also directing their attention toward the White House.
The administration issued a formal veto threat against the House Keystone XL bill on Wednesday, news that arrived on the heels of an announcement the day before that the president would not sign any legislation approving the pipeline.
Karthik Ganapathy, spokesman for 350.org, said he did not see a lot of potential to win additional votes in Congress, since the pipeline debate was "so calcified that people are fairly entrenched where they are."
The group had pressured some flexible Democrats last year ahead of Keystone votes, but Ganapathy said the focus was now squarely on the White House and making sure that Obama keeps up his promise to veto the bill. The president, he said, was "going to take the heat either way, so for us the only thing left to do is to make sure he follows through and reaps the reward."
While Keystone opponents are scrambling to prevent a veto-proof majority, they're also planning Senate amendments aimed at forcing Republicans to take tough votes en route to passing the bill.
The Senate so far has not set a date to bring pro-Keystone legislation to the floor, but a vote is expected in the coming weeks. A markup of legislation approving the pipeline that closely resembles an earlier bill sponsored by Republican Sen. John Hoeven of North Dakota and Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia will take place in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on Thursday.
Sens. Chuck Schumer and Debbie Stabenow, who lead the Democratic Policy and Communications Center, have circulated a list of five proposed amendments that are designed to "create a clear contrast with the Republican majority."
It includes measures barring export of any oil that travels through Keystone, and to require that for every job created by the pipeline, "an equal or greater amount of jobs is created through clean energy investments," according to a letter that Schumer and Stabenow circulated among Democrats a few days ago.
Meanwhile, other Democrats may push amendments on climate change. Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon told National Journal that there are discussions about an amendment that would put lawmakers on record recognizing the reality of human-induced climate change. More broadly, Sen. Edward Markey told reporters Wednesday that "we want to frame it as a climate debate."
"This is the dirtiest oil in the world," he said.
Ben Geman and Jason Plautz contributed to this article