Lame duck U.S. Senate to vote today on Keystone XL pipeline bill

WASHINGTON – The U.S. Senate is expected to vote tonight on the Keystone XL pipeline — the latest chapter in a drawn-out political dogfight that has dragged on for years.

Pipeline supporters need 60 votes to avoid prolonged filibustering on the bill, and they’re closer than they’ve ever been — but it’s not clear that they have the numbers.

The pipeline was approved last week for the ninth time by the Republican-dominated House of Representatives, but it faces a tougher test in the Senate, which is still controlled by Democrats until a new session begins next year.

A tougher hurdle still will be the desk of U.S. President Barack Obama, who is widely expected to veto the legislation, which would essentially short-circuit the White House’s own environmental review process.

Keystone XL, a political football almost since its inception six years ago, would transport bitumen from Alberta’s oilsands to refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast.

Politics suggest today’s vote will be anything but definitive.

A Nebraska court decision on the pipeline route is expected in the new year and the administration says it won’t release its regulatory review until after the verdict is in.

Those developments and a new Congress will open the way for a final round of political horse-trading.

The main reason the issue is even before the lame duck Senate is that Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu needs an issue to help her stave off an expected defeat in a December run-off election in the oil-refining state of Louisiana.

Allowing the bill to pass would also starve Obama of valuable leverage he might prefer using in two months.

Getting a green light for Keystone XL is widely expected to be among the biggest policy priorities of next year’s Republican-dominated Senate.

If Obama is inclined to approve the project, he might prefer to wait until the new year, when he could extract political concessions from the Senate in exchange for allowing the bill to proceed.