FRISCO, Colo. — The oil-greased hamster wheel sometimes known as the U.S. Congress was in hyperdrive this month, jostling and muscle-flexing in preparation for bruising battles with President Obama, who has all but said he has nothing to lose by standing up to GOP bullying, starting with the Keystone XL pipeline Republicans have championed as a top priority.
Thursday, the new majority rallied around — and passed — a bill that tries to force construction of the new fossil fuel conduit, which would shunt millions of gallons of Canadian tar sands crude through the U.S. heartland.
Backers say the pipeline will deliver jobs, economic growth and prosperity. Detractors see the pipeline as a transparent corporate giveaway, an oily black dagger representing the outsized political influence of Big Oil that, as the Congressional Budget Office reports, will only produce 50 permanent jobs for Americans. The political battle over the pipeline reflects campaign finance realities; that is, the fact that the oil and gas industry is a main backer of Republican candidates and its priorities are their priorities. It also reflects larger partisan polarization over energy and the environment.
Colorado’s Sen. Michael Bennet, otherwise known as a solid supporter of environmental policy, joined eight other Democrats in voting for the pipeline measure Thursday in what could be a tactical move, his eye on the next election, said Colorado State University political science professor Kyle Saunders.
Bennet didn’t just vote for the bill. He also voted with Republicans against a series of amendments brought by Democrats looking to use the bill to shore up environmental protections. Liberal blog site Daily Kos cites his votes against a proposal to provide analysis of the risks posed by tar sands oil to communities that rely on water sources in the path of the pipeline; a proposal that would have had inspectors sign off on the construction of the vast pipeline as non-hazardous; and a proposal offered by Kirsten Gillibrand of New York that would have finally closed the “Halliburton loophole” and require gas storage and drilling companies to comply with the Safe Drinking Water Act.
But, in the end, the thing to note is that the Keystone vote, doesn’t mean much, Saunders said, referring to Obama’s promised veto of any pipeline bill. The vote may partially alienate some of Bennet’s core constituency, at least temporarily, but it’s a vote he won’t have to defend against a future Republican challenger, Saunders added.
Bennet didn’t offer much in the way of explanation for the vote, but he’s supported the pipeline before. This week, his office issued only a terse statement saying Bennet would prefer to vote on the Keystone measure in the context of a broader energy measure including carbon-reduction and support for renewable energy. Learn more about Bennet’s voting record at govtrack.us.
Saunders said that many Democrats around the country facing re-election in 2016 may be rethinking their positions on some issues, and the jobs and economic growth arguments for the pipeline play well in polling, even if they’re not accurate.
“It’s probably not prudent, especially after what the [Democrats] suffered in Colorado, to take ideological stances over an issue like the Keystone pipeline,” Saunders said. “The Realpolitik of this is, Bennet’s vote didn’t matter, and if you’re thinking about it from a campaign point of view, it reduces the pressure on him.”
From a pragmatic political view, at least, Saunders added, Bennet did the right thing, when polling consistently shows jobs and the economy are the most important issue to 20 percent or 25 percent of the voters.
But opponents of the pipeline are quick to point out that claims of new jobs and revenue from the pipeline are exaggerated. They say follow the money.
What does it take to buy a politician? The numbers speak for themselves. According to opensecrets.org, senators voting for the Keystone pipeline measure received, on average, seven times more oil industry campaign contributions and PAC money than the senators who voted against it — $570,000, on average, for each of the senators who voted aye, compared to $78,000 on average for each of the 35 senators who voted nay.
Breaking it down by party, the nine Democrats who voted for the pipeline bill received significantly more from the industry than their party colleagues. On average, Democrats who voted for the bill received $140,193 from the oil and gas industry, while those who voted no, received just $82,595.
The oil and gas industry has donated a total of about $180,000 to Sen. Bennet during his political career, while Sen. Cory Gardner’s campaign coffers have been stuffed to brimming with more than $1 million worth of oil and gas money, according to opensecret.org’s tracker.