Lame duck? Senate to vote on Keystone pipeline, NSA reform

Lame duck? Senate to vote on Keystone pipeline, NSA reform
Republicans are set to take over the Senate next year, but the chamber is gearing up to make the lame duck session eventful: lawmakers will vote on the controversial Keystone XL Pipeline bill next week, as well as another to curb domestic surveillance.

The XL pipeline will transport oil from the tar sands of Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, and has been hailed as a job creator by supporters. However, critics claim the project would at most yield 2,000 jobs over a two-year period, destroy farms in America’s heartland, and risk contaminating groundwater aquifers.

READ MORE: #NoKXL: Thousands march in D.C. against Keystone pipeline

The project is backed by the oil industry, which is a major player in Louisiana’s economy and politics, and popular with the state’s residents. That combination also helps explain why the Senate is taking the issue up for a vote in its lame duck session.

Democrats had previously failed to bring the Keystone legislation up for a vote, but Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu – a Democratic sponsor of the bill – is keen to win a run-off vote for her Senate seat, and pressed for a vote next week. She is hoping to distance herself from the Obama administration in order to win over conservative voters in her state, but her competitor in the House, Rep. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), also called for a vote this week on the controversial bill.

Both politicians are hoping the votes will help them curry favor with voters in their Senate runoff.

READ MORE:Judge: Nebraska governor exceeded authority in approving Keystone pipeline

REuters / Gus Ruelas

So far, the bill has lacked votes to overcome a presidential veto, and Obama has urged a thorough study of the environmental impact of the pipeline before making a decision.

The vote had originally been scheduled for January, but Landrieu changed all of that Wednesday afternoon when she said,“I don’t think we necessarily need to wait until January.” She reached an agreement with Democratic and Republican leaders to vote as early as next Tuesday.

READ MORE:Obama administration delays decision on Keystone XL pipeline again

“I’m glad that we will now have an up-or-down vote on the Hoeven-Landrieu bill to green light the Keystone pipeline, and I urge all senators to join me in the effort to approve this important project,” Landrieu said in a statement.

Landrieu's Keystone vote: cause it'll either get her campaign cash for the runoff or a SWEET sinecure if she loses.

Meanwhile, Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) also announced he will seek a full Senate vote on the USA Freedom Act, which will place some limits on NSA surveillance. Specifically, the bill would create more transparency and accountability when the government seeks court approval for surveillance activities.

The bill would place metadata records – information such as the time a call was made and the duration of the call, but not the actual content of the call itself – in the possession of telephone companies instead of the NSA. If intelligence agencies wanted to gain access to the data, they would have to seek approval from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA).

The bill would also allow public advocates to participate in Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA) proceedings. Additionally, the government would be required to disclose FISA opinions and statistics about the extent of domestic spying activities, although it could decline to publish them if it decides it would damage national security.

The American people are wondering whether Congress can get anything done,” Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the lead sponsor of the bill, told “The answer is yes. Congress can and should take up and pass the bipartisan USA Freedom Act, without delay.”

Although the House of Representatives passed the original draft, Leahy further strengthened the bill at the behest of civil liberties advocates. Notably, key reformers like Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) have not thrown their support behind the bill, hoping for stronger measures against the “backdoor” collection of Americans’ data – something done indirectly when the primary target is a foreigner.