A political gambit by an endangered Senate Democrat broke loose long-stalled legislation to force approval of the Keystone XL pipeline as the lame-duck Congress returned to a Capitol where results of last week's GOP blowout are still sinking in.
The move by Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu came as some conservatives were spoiling to drag must-pass spending bills into their battle with President Barack Obama over his planned executive action on immigration, raising at least the possibility of a government shutdown next month or next year.
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Landrieu is an underdog to win a fourth term in a runoff next month with GOP Rep. Bill Cassidy. She's a supporter of the Canada-to-Texas pipeline but was unable to win a vote on it, which has been a flash point in her race. Cassidy's version recently passed the House and GOP leaders immediately scheduled another vote on it for Thursday.
The Keystone XL issue was an unexpected addition to a lame-duck agenda focused on keeping the government running past a Dec. 11 deadline.
Preventing a government shutdown is a top priority of GOP leaders like House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. McConnell said the other big items for the lame-duck Congress are renewing expired tax breaks for businesses and individuals, more money to fight Ebola and renewing Obama's authority to arm and train opposition to Islamic State militants in Syria, which expires next month.
"This will require cooperation from both sides of the aisle, from both sides of the Rotunda and from both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue," McConnell said as the lame-duck session opened. "The actions of the next few weeks could help set a positive tone for the work of the next Congress. It's a tone that will depend largely on the administration's willingness to respect the message sent last Tuesday."
Republicans and several moderate Democrats insist that construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline would create tens of thousands of jobs. Environmentalists maintain that the project would have a negative impact and contribute to climate change.
Keystone XL supporters say Senate action is needed to end years of delay by the Obama administration on whether to approve the project.
Senate passage of the bill as early as next Tuesday would force President Barack Obama to either sign it into law or veto the measure just weeks after a Democratic drubbing in midterm elections.
While the White House stopped short of directly threatening a veto, spokesman Josh Earnest said Obama takes a "dim view" of legislative efforts to force action on the project. Earnest reiterated Obama's preference for evaluating the pipeline through a long-stalled State Department review.
Both Republican and Democratic leaders signaled that Landrieu would get her vote, but it hardly seemed to begin a new era of cooperation. Pure politics was at play as Democrats sought to boost Landrieu's bid and Republicans favoring the pipeline were in no position to block a vote now.
"This is for the runoff that's coming up in Louisiana, trying to spin it and play it," said Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb.
Meanwhile, McConnell again warned Obama that issuing an executive order on immigration would be a "big mistake" but promises there won't be a government shutdown next month.
That task may have gotten more complicated as more conservative GOP voices such as Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama promise to take every step at their disposal to try to block Obama on immigration, including using their control of the government's purse strings.
Sessions and Sen. Mike Lee of Utah are among those arguing to use an upcoming must-pass spending bill — either in December or next year — to try to block Obama from taking unilateral action to protect millions of immigrants in the U.S. illegally from deportation. At the very least they want to pass a short-term funding bill that punts major decisions on spending and other policies into next year when Republicans control the Senate.
Whether to do a short-term spending bill to prevent a shutdown or an omnibus for the full fiscal year has yet to be determined and will be a topic for intra-GOP discussions this week. GOP leaders like Boehner are pressing for a longer-term solution, but it remains to be seen what the rank and file would like.
"I don't know where that's headed," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. "I'll have to wait and see."