WASHINGTON - In the run-up to a razor-thin vote, Sen. Mary Landrieu beseeched fellow Democrats on Tuesday to provide the support necessary to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, the massive project at the center of a fierce environmental dispute and her own uphill struggle for a new term from Louisiana.
The three-term Democrat made her pitch privately as the White House signaled ever more strongly that President Barack Obama would veto the legislation if it clears Congress — and Republicans vowed to make the project's approval a priority when they take control of the Senate in January.
"I wish the Senate would have followed the lead of Congressman Cassidy and his House colleagues in approving Keystone years ago. It's just common sense," Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell said in advance of the scheduled vote. If there was no passage Tuesday night, "a new majority will be taking this matter up and sending it to the president," McConnell said.
Rep. Bill Cassidy is Landrieu's opponent in a Dec. 6 runoff election. He was the lead sponsor of an identical bill that cleared the House last week.
The pipeline legislation unified Republicans. All 45 members of the rank and file supported the legislation to end years of study and delay and approve its construction.
It divided Democrats, though. While Obama opposes the measure, likely 2016 presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton has repeatedly refused to take a position. Most recently, her spokesman did not respond to two requests over the weekend to do so.
Among Senate Democrats, 14 had publicly announced their support for the bill in the hours before the vote, but several whom Landrieu had hoped would provide the critical 60th vote needed for passage had not stepped forward. Among retiring lawmakers. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, Tim Johnson of South Dakota and Tom Harkin of Iowa all said in advance they would oppose the bill.
Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, who opened the door on Monday to becoming the 60th vote, slammed it shut a few hours later.
Several Democrats said the issue was discussed at some length at a weekly closed-door meeting of the party's senators. Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a supporter of the bill, said Landrieu pointed out that "this vote is going to happen, whether it happens now or it happens in January, same outcome, so why not do it now? She brought it to a head."
The project would move oil from Canada into the United States and eventually to the Gulf Coast. Supporters say it would create jobs and ease American dependence on Middle East oil. A government environmental impact statement also predicts that a pipeline would result in less damage to the climate than moving the same oil by rail.
Critics argue that the drilling itself is environmentally harmful, and said much of the Canadian crude would be exported with little or no impact on America's drive for energy stability.
At the White House, press secretary Josh Earnest said the measure is something "the president doesn't support because the president believes that this is something that should be determined through the State Department and the regular process that is in place to evaluate projects like this."
Trailing in polls before the runoff and heavily outspent in the television ad wars, she has seized control of the Senate's agenda in recent days at the same time she pursues her campaign.
On the home front, Landrieu's campaign announced during the day that musician Stevie Wonder would perform at a fundraiser on her behalf.
In the Senate, she has repeatedly cast herself as an independent lawmaker willing to stand up to Democratic leaders as well as the White House.
Even strong Democratic opponents of the legislation credited Landrieu with making the effort to score a major victory for her oil-rich home state. "Let the record be clear forever that this debate would not be before this body if not for Sen. Landrieu's insistence," said Sen. Barbara Boxer of California.
That was as far as it went, though. Boxer strongly opposed the project in remarks on the floor.
In political terms, Republicans looked like they were in a win-win position, assured of dividing Democrats no matter the outcome, and in a position to force Obama to veto the legislation in the new year if it comes to that.
The proposed pipeline would run 1,179 miles from the Canadian tar sands to Gulf coast refineries. It has been at the center of a struggle since Calgary-based TransCanada proposed it in 2008. The most recent delay was caused by a lawsuit filed in Nebraska over its proposed route.
The delays have caused friction between the U.S. and Canada, which is interested in exporting its growing oil sands production.