Mark K. Matthews | The Denver Post via the Boulder Daily Camera
Rarely has a dead-end vote caused this much trouble for U.S. Sen. Mark Udall.
But on Wednesday the Colorado Democrat was forced, once again, to pick sides in the fight over the Keystone XL pipeline — an issue that has stalked his re-election campaign for months.
A self-proclaimed moderate, Udall has tried to court both environmentalists and the energy industry as he attempts to win a second term against U.S. Rep. Cory Gardner, R-Yuma.
But this week that strategy hit a bump: the ambitions of U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, another vulnerable Democrat up for re-election.
Landrieu needs the backing of the energy industry back home and so — in a show of loyalty — she used her clout as head of the Senate energy committee to force members of that panel, including Udall, to vote on the U.S.-Canada oil pipeline.
“The Keystone XL will allow the U.S. to import oil from a close ally, Canada, instead of nations like Iraq or Venezuela,” Landrieu said.
But lawmakers have called the move a show vote because it’s widely believed that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid won’t allow a floor vote on the measure, which would fast-track construction of the oil pipeline.
“I think we need to be cautious in over-selling it here,” said U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, of the eventual 12-10 committee vote in favor of the pipeline.
“The real challenge, as we know, is getting an actual vote on the Senate floor.”
None of that is any comfort, however, to Udall. He’s been hammered by Gardner and other Republicans for not demanding that the Obama administration approve the pipeline, which ultimately would carry oil from Alberta to the U.S. Gulf Coast.
Environmentalists have raised concerns about potential accidents as well as the pipeline’s long-term effect on the planet. Meanwhile, supporters say it would create jobs and boost the economy.
During Wednesday’s debate on the issue, Udall did not speak other than to cast a “no” vote against the project.
He previously has opposed efforts to hurry the pipeline’s approval, although a Udall aide said that the senator in 2013 also voted against a measure that had the potential to further delay the process, if not kill the pipeline outright.
“Sen. Udall believes that the Keystone XL pipeline has been politicized by both sides of the aisle,” said Mike Saccone, his spokesman.
Instead of votes like the one Wednesday, Saccone added that Udall wants to see the process run its course. “He believes the technical review needs to be seen through to the end,” Saccone said.
The application for the pipeline by TransCanada Corp. remains under consideration by the U.S. Department of State, although that review could extend beyond November’s election.
Saccone said Udall was “frustrated” by the years-long process but that he would not make a final decision on the merits of the project until it had undergone a full review.
“If this pipeline were being routed through Colorado, my constituents would want to know that science — and not politics — determined the way forward,” Udall said in a statement.
Republicans immediately pounced on the vote — accusing Udall of dodging the issue.
“Sen. Udall continues the great Keystone cop-out,” said Gardner, who is challenging Udall for his seat. The incumbent “continues to get in the way of North American energy independence.”
Added state Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, in a statement: “It’s irresponsible for Sen. Udall to ignore the benefits of pursuing an all-of-the-above energy strategy, and I urge him to join Congressman Cory Gardner in supporting the Keystone Pipeline.”
Ken Bickers, a political scientist at the University of Colorado, said Udall is “trying to walk a fine line.”
“He needs the base to turn out for him,” said Bickers, who included Democratic environmentalists in that category.
As part of that equation is the looming presence of wealthy eco-activist Tom Steyer, whose has pledged to spend millions of dollars to help candidates who “will take bold action on climate change.”
But Bickers said that Udall also can’t “arouse the ire of unaffiliated voters and independents who would like the idea of more secure, stable gas supplies.”
Hence the current approach — although that might not work for so long, Bickers said.
“There is danger for Udall for trying to take no position for this,” said Bickers, who added that Gardner could try and make the Keystone issue part of a broader narrative about Udall’s responsiveness to state voters.