Mary Landrieu’s Pipeline Pipe Dream

Why are Democrats indulging the Louisiana senator’s desperate, pointless push to fast-track Keystone XL?

Phtoo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Sen. Mary Landrieu probably won’t be smiling for long, even in the unlikely event her pipeline push passes.

Phtoo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Sen. Mary Landrieu wasted little time reminding everyone that the Senate’s lame-duck session is not a lame-duck session for everyone. The Louisiana Democrat, who will face GOP challenger Bill Cassidy in a runoff next month, took to the floor on Wednesday, less than 30 minutes after the upper chamber convened for the first time since the midterm elections. “I believe it is time to act,” Landrieu said, renewing her advocacy for the Keystone XL oil pipeline. “I want to say ‘yes’ to [the] majority leader—new Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. The time to start is now.”

That Landrieu is launching such a Hail Mary is hardly a surprise. Greenlighting the pipeline has long been a goal of hers, and the three-term senator has little reason not to go down swinging now that she’s likely to be ousted from office. What is much more of a shock, though, is that Harry Reid—the majority leader for all of two more months—is indulging her, announcing Wednesday that he would bring her Keystone bill to the floor for a vote. That’s a baffling decision, not just because it’s so transparently politically craven—although it is—but because it risks so much for so little potential gain.

Landrieu faces a steep, perhaps even impossible battle to hold on to her seat. She bested Cassidy by 1.2 points on Election Day, but failed to garner the votes needed to avoid a head-to-head runoff. With third-place-finisher Rob Maness—a Tea Party favorite who won 14 percent of the vote—now backing Cassidy, the four-term GOP congressman has become the clear favorite.

Landrieu has a history of pulling out wins in races she was expected to lose, but this would be something else—one of the greatest escape acts in recent memory. Given the current political landscape, her eleventh-hour gamesmanship reeks of desperation. Worse yet, it’s totally pointless desperation. Landrieu’s Keystone bill currently lacks the 60 votes it needs to avoid a Democratic filibuster, and if she finds them before a potential vote next week, the White House has left little doubt that President Obama will veto the bill if it reaches his desk.

Even if we suspend disbelief—and, again, we shouldn’t—and imagine a world in which Congress passed this Keystone bill and Obama signed it, it’s highly unlikely that would be enough for Landrieu to win over the conservative voters she needs to hold on to her seat. Polls show Cassidy winning a one-on-one matchup with Landrieu, and whatever happens in the lame-duck session is unlikely to change that. Adding to Landrieu’s woes is the fact that the GOP’s midterm successes will strip her of one of her chief selling points: her power as the chairwoman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Things are so bleak, in fact, that the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has pulled the plug on nearly $2 million worth of ads it had planned to run on her behalf.

So what exactly will Landrieu be selling on the stump? Any short-term Keystone job creation wouldn’t actually be in Louisiana—the southern portion of the pipeline, which is already built, stops in Texas. And if Landrieu tries to crow that she pushed for a Senate vote, that’s likely to be offset by the fact that Cassidy has introduced his own Keystone bill in the House. The most likely outcome is that Cassidy’s bill sails through the House (possibly as soon as this Friday) while Landrieu’s version stalls in the Senate, allowing the Republican challenger to point to a legislative accomplishment while also painting Senate Democrats as obstructionists.

What’s befuddling isn’t that the Democrats are playing politics with Keystone—it’s that they’re playing them so poorly. Thanks to their seven-seat-and-counting gain on Election Day, Republicans will take control of the Senate next year for the first time since George W. Bush’s second term. More importantly for the Keystone crowd, the pipeline is all but certain to have a filibuster-proof 60-plus votes in the next Senate, whether Landrieu is there or not.

As I explained last week, a GOP-passed Keystone bill would back Obama into a tight corner next year. If the president signs it, Republicans can point to the pipeline as proof they’re delivering on their campaign promises. If he vetoes it, they can argue ahead of 2016 that it’s the Democrats who are responsible for Washington’s gridlock. The political price Obama will pay would only grow if Landrieu somehow got her way and he had to veto a bill passed by a Democrat-controlled Senate. Any of these scenarios would be a win for Republicans politically and a blow to the president’s larger push to fight U.S.—and global—emissions during his final two years in office.

Reid’s decision to give Landrieu the vote she wants, then, is absolutely mystifying. Nevertheless, it is squarely in line with Democrats’ previous desperate—and transparent—attempts to keep her ensconced in office.

In February, Reid orchestrated a game of musical chairs within the Democratic caucus that ultimately landed Landrieu the Senate Energy gavel, in a move that ensured that the oil and gas industry would pour even more money into her campaign coffers. Landrieu has a long history of breaking with her party on energy issues. She has been a high-profile friend to BP in the aftermath of the Gulf Coast oil spill, routinely called for more offshore drilling, voted time and again with Republicans against efforts to curb U.S. carbon emissions, and pushed her Keystone bill out of the Energy Committee this summer. Her liberal colleagues, however, largely held their tongues with the hopes she’d be able to defend her seat and help lock in the Democrats’ Senate majority.

The political gamesmanship over Keystone hasn’t been confined to the Senate. In April the White House announcedagain—that it was extending its review of the pipeline. Ostensibly the move was designed to allow the State Department more time to review the project, which would deliver 830,000 barrels of carbon-heavy crude per day from Alberta’s oil sands to Gulf Coast refineries. But the politics of the decision were evident: It allowed the president to avoid what’s become a high-profile litmus test in the larger climate debate, while giving Landrieu and other vulnerable Democrats the chance to rail against the delay to score points with the anti-Obama crowd in their home states.

The political gifts didn’t end there. Liberal billionaire Tom Steyer and other deep-pocketed green groups opted to stay on the sidelines in Louisiana, despite the fact that Landrieu was floated as an early possible target for the pro-climate (or, perhaps more accurately, anti-anti-climate) cash that environmentalists poured into midterm races around the country.

All of these concessions weren’t enough to keep Landrieu out of a runoff. And yet, Democratic leaders appear willing to give Landrieu an endless supply of political gifts. If they really are willing to send a Keystone bill to the White House to help the three-term Louisiana senator, then they should have allowed it to happen in August, when it could have helped more Democrats than just her. If you’re going to be crass and opportunistic, then you might as well be smart about it.

Even if Landrieu surprises everyone and wins the runoff, it won’t change the Senate math enough to keep Democrats in power. A Landrieu win would add a seat to the minority caucus, but it wouldn’t stop McConnell from becoming majority leader. The only real difference, then, if she manages to stick around for another term, is that she’ll get a front-row seat as Senate Republicans push to make her pipeline fantasies a reality.