WASHINGTON (AP) — Under pressure from the White House, the Democratic-controlled Senate on Thursday blocked a Republican bid to speed approval of an oil pipeline from Canada to Texas.
The 56-42 vote came after President Barack Obama called Democratic senators to lobby them to oppose the 1,700-mile Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry tar sands oil from western Canada to refineries along the Texas Gulf Coast.
Even so, 11 Democrats sided with Republicans to sidestep Obama's rejection of the pipeline and allow the $7 billion project to go forward. Sixty votes were needed for approval.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., blasted Obama after the vote.
"President Obama's personal pleas to wavering senators may have tipped the balance against this legislation. When it comes to delays over Keystone, anyone looking for a culprit should now look no further than the Oval Office," McConnell said.
Democratic opposition to the pipeline "shows how deeply out of touch they are with the concerns of middle-class Americans," McConnell added.
White House press secretary Jay Carney confirmed that Obama called senators, but did not identify them.
"The president believes that it is wrong to play politics with a pipeline project whose route has yet to be proposed," Carney said, referring to a yet-to-be-settled route that would avoid the environmentally sensitive Sandhills region in Nebraska. Obama had cited uncertainty over the Nebraska route in rejecting the pipeline in January. The president said there was not enough time for a fair review before a deadline forced on him by Republicans.
Carney dismissed GOP claims that the pipeline would ease rising prices at the gas pump as "false advertising."
Carney called the Republican proposal "ineffectual sham legislation that has no impact on the price of gas and is irresponsible because, as we said before, it tries to legislate the approval of a pipeline for which there is not even a route." The State Department initially had blocked the project in November, citing concerns about a proposed route through the Sandhills.
Pipeline supporters, including congressional Republicans, the oil industry and some labor groups, have been attacking Obama for blocking the pipeline, which they say could create thousands of jobs and provide a stable source of oil from a close neighbor and ally.
Democrats and environmental groups counter that the pipeline would transport "dirty oil" that takes huge amounts of energy to extract, adding to the pollution blamed for global warming. They also worry about a catastrophic oil spill.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said the Republican amendment, sponsored by Sen. John Hoeven of North Dakota, would have short-circuited the process needed to plan the best route for the pipeline.
"If Republicans truly want to move ahead with this pipeline, they should stop treating it like a political football," Reid said, noting that the GOP inserted a pipeline provision into an unrelated tax bill in December. It was that bill that led to Obama's rejection of the pipeline in January.
The pipeline operator, Calgary-based TransCanada, said last month it would build a portion of the pipeline from Oklahoma to Texas. That 485-mile line from Cushing, Okla., to Port Arthur, Texas, does not require presidential approval because it does not cross a U.S. border.
The Obama administration had suggested development of an Oklahoma-to-Texas line to alleviate an oil bottleneck at a Cushing storage hub.
"Half of the pipeline is already being built, and the company building the pipeline is submitting another application for the remainder of the route," Reid said, adding that the permit process should be given time to work and not be affected Republican desires "to appease the tea party or big oil companies."
Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, one of the 11 Democrats who voted in favor of the pipeline, said he was disappointed by the Senate vote.
"Congress missed another chance to move the ball forward," Tester said, adding that the pipeline will put Montana residents to work and increase U.S. energy security.
"I'll keep fighting to see it built - and built responsibly," he said.
Tester faces a tight re-election race against Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg, who supports the pipeline.
The pipeline would run through Montana, South Dakota, Kansas, Nebraska and Oklahoma before reaching Texas.
Follow Matthew Daly's energy coverage on Twitter: (at)MatthewDalyWDC