The new Republican-led Congress that takes over this week will immediately take up legislation to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, looking to send an early message that their agenda doesn't align with that of President Obama.
Both chambers are expected to vote early this month on the 1,700-mile oil pipeline that stretches from Canada to the Gulf Coast, which the Obama administration has been reviewing for more than six years.
"This is a jobs project and infrastructure project that's been hanging out there for six years," said Robert Dillon, GOP spokesman for the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. "What the president does is up to the president. That's his prerogative."
In the Senate, the Energy and Natural Resources Committee will hold a hearing on the pipeline Wednesday, followed by a committee vote Thursday on legislation from Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D. The bill is expected to pass, setting up a floor vote the following week. The House also plans to vote on, and likely pass, the bill in the next two weeks, but an Energy and Commerce Committee aide said the panel hasn't scheduled a hearing.
The action comes as the Nebraska Supreme Court is weighing whether the pipeline route running through that state is constitutional, giving Obama a potential reason to veto the legislation if it gets to his desk. Obama has voiced disapproval of similar legislation that would circumvent the State Department's review of the pipeline, which is necessary since its builder, TransCanada Corp., needs a cross-border permit to complete the northern leg that stretches into Canada.
The Nebraska decision is expected in January. Republicans, however, said the uncertainty shouldn't stop them from moving ahead with the legislation, which failed by one vote in November when the upper chamber was under Democratic control.
"Frankly, the president continues to move the goal posts and he will always have another excuse. After six years, we think the American public just wants this built and we can move on to other issues instead of constant delays," Ryan Bernstein, Hoeven's chief of staff, said in an email.
Before they worry about getting 67 votes to override a veto, Senate Republicans are primarily concerned about corralling the 60 votes needed to pass it.
One sticking point may be the insistence of incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to stick to an open amendment process. That could invite controversial amendments such as limiting the Environmental Protection Agency's ability to regulate power plant emissions, which could endanger the Democratic support needed to pass the Keystone XL bill.
"People can offer their amendments, and we'll see what there's support for. So I can't predict the outcome. But isn't that the whole point? This is regular order. We want to give everybody their chance and we hope that that will foster more bipartisanship," Hoeven told reporters last month.
Dillon said that Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, would make it clear at her panel's two hearings this week that other bills would present more "strategic opportunities," which he said hopefully would holster amendments that could derail Keystone XL.
"What's important to also remember is this is not going to be the only energy bill that we do," Dillon said. "This isn't the only the train in the station."
But in the end, Obama is the conductor — and his recent public comments on the $8 billion project have buoyed pipeline opponents.
At a year-end press conference, Obama said that he didn't think the pipeline would do much to reduce unemployment — the State Department says Keystone XL would create 42,100 indirect and direct jobs during a two-year construction phase and 35 permanent jobs afterward. He also said the oil sands the Keystone XL would transport are destined for overseas, a claim that echoes the concerns of environmentalists who want Obama to nix the project.
Obama also reiterated that whether the pipeline contributes to climate change would determine its fate.
"I want to make sure that if in fact this project goes forward, that it's not adding to the problem of climate change, which I think is very serious and does impose serious costs on the American people, some of them long term, but significant costs nonetheless," he said.
A final environmental review said the pipeline wouldn't pose a "significant" environmental risk, though it did say Keystone XL would add to cumulative greenhouse gas emissions.
Environmental groups found cheer in Obama's comments, and are pressing congressional allies and Obama into opposing legislation to approve the pipeline.
"Senate Republican leadership has made it clear that approving the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline is top of their agenda. Members of Congress should hold strong and allow the ongoing presidential permit process to continue. And the president should follow the reasons he has laid out, not only to veto any bill that does attempt to approve Keystone XL, but also to reject this dirty energy project," Susan Casey-Lefkowitz, director of programs with the Natural Resources Defense Council, wrote Friday.