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Senate Democrats Need the Keystone XL | Commentary

Senate Democrats are raising a king’s ransom to maintain their hold on Congress’ upper chamber — Mark Pryor has raised $4 million and Kay Hagan has raised more than $5 million, while the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee raised $48 million in 2013. Those are strong indicators, but it’s far from a done deal.

Beyond big fundraising hauls, Democrats are looking for their national leaders to close a critical policy gap that exists between party leaders and the voters who will elect them in November.

The best example of this policy gap is found in President Barack Obama’s decision whether to grant TransCanada a permit to build the Keystone XL Pipeline. A Pew Research poll taken in fall 2012 found Americans support its construction by a 2-to-1 margin, with strong majority support among both Republicans and Democrats.

The national support translates into interesting Senate politics, where 14 different races can (and likely will be) affected by the president’s decision whether to permit Keystone XL or not: open seats in Georgia, Iowa, Nebraska Montana, South Dakota, Michigan and West Virginia, combined with states where incumbent Democrats running for re-election have voted to support the pipeline in Alaska, Arkansas, Delaware, Louisiana, North Carolina and Virginia.

A survey of the senators who up are for re-election in 2014 is very telling:

Senators currently representing 25 of the 35 seats up for grabs in 2014 have voted to build Keystone XL.

Keystone XL supporters currently hold 11 of the 20 seats that Democrats are defending.

Eight of the 11 Democrats that have voted in support of Keystone XL are seeking re-election.

Keystone XL has more than a 60 percent approval rating in states with open races.

Senate Democrats know rejecting Keystone XL will hurt their chances. Mark Begich of Alaska, Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana, Pryor of Arkansas and Hagan of North Carolina — all of whom are up for re-election in 2014 — joined retiring Sen. Max Baucus of Montana in signing a bipartisan letter recently urging Obama to sign off on the pipeline.

All five senators represent states that Obama lost to Republican candidate Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential election.

The politics goes beyond senators. Labor leaders are giving a strong backing because they believe Keystone XL will create 9,000 new good-paying construction jobs. Nine thousand is an accurate number, because that is exactly the number of construction workers it took to build the phase Obama approved in 2012 and will start delivering shipments to Cushing, Okla., this month.

The AFL-CIO said: “[T]he privately-financed Keystone XL pipeline project is projected to create tens of thousands of U.S. jobs in construction and manufacturing … workers from all over the United States would benefit from the project.”

A decision by the president to reject TransCanada’s second application for a permit to build the pipeline (their first was rejected in 2012) will lead to a vote in Congress on legislation approving the pipeline — a vote that would place all of these Democratic senators squarely in the middle of an issue where their constituencies strongly disagree with their leaders.

No wonder other Senate Democrats are pressuring the president on the issue. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota took the president to task over the State Department’s foot-dragging, saying “the Keystone Pipeline decision has taken longer than it took us to defeat Hitler” and has threatened congressional veto to override the administration’s decision. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia told USA Today that approval for the pipeline is a “no brainer.”

The longer the president waits, the more it will hurt his party’s chances of retaining control of the Senate. And, although granting the permit will certainly infuriate the president’s green base, facing Republican majorities in both the House and the Senate will seriously hamper any chance that he will have to enact any part of his agenda during his last two years in the White House.

The clock is ticking.

Michael Whatley is executive vice president with Consumer Energy Alliance. He leads the campaign, an effort advocating for construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline.

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