Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), pictured last month, said Thursday: "We… (European Pressphoto Agency )
Reporting from Washington — With gas prices becoming a high-octane campaign issue, the Democratic-led Senate defeated a Republican effort Thursday to advance the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline.
The vote to attach the project to a must-pass transportation bill required 60 votes to advance. It received 56, with 11 Democrats joining Republicans in support; 42 senators voted no.
President Obama had called senators to urge a no vote.
"We hope that the Congress will ... not waste its time with ineffectual, sham legislation," White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said.
But the effort — along with a vote on a measure to expand offshore drilling that was also rejected — was designed to highlight differences between the two parties and provide fodder in this year's battle for control of the White House and the Senate.
"The president simply can't claim to have a comprehensive approach to energy, because he doesn't. And any time he says he does, the American people should remember one word: Keystone," said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. No Republicans opposed the Keystone measure, but two did not vote.
The pipeline would carry oil from Canada's tar sands in Alberta south to Texas refineries. Obama rejected it in January, saying Congress had imposed too tight a deadline for adequate review. The pipeline's original route would have passed through the Nebraska Sandhills region atop the massive Ogallala aquifer.
Republicans are eager to showcase Obama's decision as proof that the administration is not doing enough to generate jobs and increase energy supplies. Opponents of the project accuse supporters of exaggerating the number of jobs it would create and dispute that it would reduce gas prices.
Pump prices have moved center stage on Capitol Hill, with hearings and an almost daily barrage of GOP criticisms of the administration's approach to energy policy.
The pipeline issue has divided core Democratic constituencies, with some labor unions backing the project as an opportunity to create jobs. But environmentalists warn that the pipeline would expand the nation's carbon footprint and create more pollution.
An alternative Democratic measure also failed. It would have prohibited the export of oil transported in the Keystone XL pipeline and, according to its sponsor, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), put "teeth behind all of the debate that this energy is going to be for the American consumer."
Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.), who led the floor debate on the Keystone amendment, argued that the Democratic alternative would have added "additional impediments" to the project.
The Keystone votes come as the Senate is on track to pass a $109-billion, two-year transportation bill next week. The legislation sets road, highway and transit priorities.
But the bill's fate is uncertain because House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) has been unable to corral a majority for passage in the Republican-controlled House. Republicans are in disagreement over how big the bill should be and what it should include.
Boehner said Thursday that he planned to bring up the Senate bill "or something like it" after the House returns from a weeklong recess next week.
A Republican-led effort in the Senate to open more coastal areas to energy exploration was defeated, with 44 in favor and 54 against. The initial tally was 46 to 52, but two senators later changed their votes.
"We don't need any more giveaways to Big Oil," Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said in opposition, warning that opening the Atlantic and Pacific to new drilling would put tourism-dependent coastal economies at risk.
"You can't drill your way out of this," Boxer added.
Boxer, who as chairwoman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee helped write the transportation bill, has warned that attaching controversial provisions could jeopardize the legislation, which supporters say would fund job-creating highway and mass transit projects.
Senators are seeking to attach their pet issues to the bill, which could be one of the few measures to make it through Congress in this election year.
One measure that did pass Thursday would steer 80% of the penalties paid by BP for the 2010 Gulf of Mexico spill to restoring coastal ecosystems and rebuilding Gulf Coast economies. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) called the action "a huge step toward making sure any fines against BP end up in the local communities harmed by the company's oil spill."