Keystone XL as price for a U.S. debt extension? Republicans appear to back away

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WASHINGTON – U.S. Republicans have apparently considered — and rejected — the idea of using a high-stakes fiscal showdown to force the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline.

There had been reports that Republicans in Congress contemplated demanding approval for the pipeline in exchange for their votes to raise the U.S. debt ceiling in the coming weeks — but that they couldn’t agree on it, or any other, debt strategy.

The top Republican in the House of Representatives didn’t deny those reports today and, in fact, appeared to joke about the fact that his caucus is too divided to come up with a cohesive strategy.

In response to a question about making Keystone his party’s bottom line, House Speaker John Boehner quipped: “You know, Mother Theresa is a saint now but… if the Congress wanted to make her a saint and attach that to the debt ceiling, we probably couldn’t get (unanimity with) 218 Republican votes. Sorry.”

The quip drew laughs, but it raised a pair of serious points.

For starters, there’s the threat of global economic chaos if the U.S. defaulted on its debt payments. And there are also deep divisions in the Republican party, between the more moderate brass and conservative grassroots, over how aggressive it should be in the debt fight.

Boehner and other Republican leaders have shown little desire to become embroiled in yet another high-stakes showdown, and there’s talk the party might simply allow for a so-called “clean” debt extension without demanding anything in return.

Some had suggested Keystone XL could be an easy issue for all Republicans to rally around, and extract a political gain during the debt fight. However, Boehner’s remarks today suggest not even that would unite his caucus.

The Obama administration has insisted the pipeline regulatory process is apolitical, and has urged its foes not to interfere.

A decision on the Alberta-to-Texas pipeline is at least three months away, but there’s no fixed deadline for a decision.

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