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Senate Approves Short-Term Extension of Payroll Tax Cut, Gives Obama Two Months to OK Keystone XL Pipeline

Agencies are reporting that the Senate has passed legislation to extend the payroll tax cut and jobless benefits for two months. The legislation also included a provision requiring the White House to make a decision on the Keystone XL project in 60 days.

"If President Obama allows a deal cut in oily, money-filled congressional back rooms to lead to a pipeline that harms the public — and if he does without a credible, science-based environmental review — he will have failed one of the biggest tests of his presidency," said Friends of the Earth President Erich Pica. The measure was overwhelmingly approved with a 89-10 vote during a Saturday session.

Republican Sens. Bob Corker (Tenn.), Jim DeMint (S.C.), Ron Johnson (Wis.), Mark Kirk (Ill.), Jerry Moran (Kan.), Jeff Sessions (Ala.), Richard Shelby (Ala.) and Democratic Sens. Patrick Leahy (Vt.) and Joe Manchin (W.Va.), as well as Independent Bernie Sanders (Vt.) voted against the package.

GOP and Democratic sources told POLITICO "that the White House swallowed the House Republican-written pipeline rider in order to get a deal to extend the tax holiday, jobless benefits and the Medicare reimbursement rate into February."

On Friday, Noah Greenwald, endangered species director at the Center for Biological Diversity, stated: “The State Department’s own environmental review states that pumping dirty tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada to refineries on the Gulf of Mexico through Keystone XL will pollute our water. It will also commit us to an unsustainable future based on dirty fossil fuels at the precise moment when the national interest demands that we rapidly transition to clean energy to avoid climate catastrophe. There is simply no way that President Obama can honor his commitments to the American people if he caves to Big Oil on Keystone XL at this late hour.”

From AP:

In a statement, White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer indicated Obama would sign the two-month extension measure, saying it had met his test of "preventing a tax increase on 160 million hardworking Americans" and avoiding damage to the economy recovery.

The statement made no mention of the pipeline.

CNN reports:

A senior administration official noted that though the president has said he would reject any attempt to "mandate" construction of the pipeline before it receives further review, the Keystone provision Senate leaders have agreed to speeds up the approval process -- giving the administration 60 days to make a decision -- but does not mandate construction.

The two-month deadline on the pipeline decision comes as a defeat to the Obama administration, which had sought to postpone the decision until 2013, well after elections.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) voted against the measure. "I strongly oppose the provision to fast-track approval of the Keystone XL pipeline. Producing tar sands oil creates 82 percent more carbon pollution than conventional oil, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. NASA scientist James Hansen says exploiting the tar sands would be ‘game over' for our efforts to reverse global warming. I urge President Obama to call the Republicans' bluff and reject the dangerous Keystone XL project," Sanders said.

According to Politico, "A senior Obama official noted Friday after the Senate deal was announced that the Keystone pipeline permit likely won't be approved because it forces the State Department to conduct its review at a faster pace than is possible. The official added the Senate deal does not mandate construction of the pipeline."

Reacting to the Saturday vote, environmentalist and anti-tar sands activist Bill McKibben tweeted:

big oil is backing the pres. up against a wall on keystone; small hopeful signs emerging he may do the brave thing?

Susan Casey-Lefkowitz, director of the international program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, was optimistic the two-month deadline would kill the project. "The Republican stampede to build the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline is going to backfire. In forcing President Obama to reach a hasty decision -- which he has said he would not do -- the president will have no choice but to reject the pipeline as not in the national interest.”

Friends of the Earth President Erich Pica had the following response:

"The deal passed by the Senate rushes the pipeline review process, making a credible, science-based review impossible. Because of this, and the great harm we already know the pipeline would cause, President Obama has no choice but to reject the pipeline.

"The Keystone XL pipeline is a carbon bomb that would devastate our climate by resulting in the use of vast quantities of tar sands oil that is much dirtier than conventional crude.

"The pipeline would threaten communities through America's heartland with costly and toxic spills — a spill from a similar pipeline last year shut the Kalamazoo River in Michigan and the ongoing cleanup has already cost more than half a billion dollars.

"The pipeline would also harm people at both ends, poisoning drinking water near tar sands extraction sites in Canada and increasing air pollution that causes lung disease near refineries in Texas.

"If President Obama allows a deal cut in oily, money-filled congressional back rooms to lead to a pipeline that harms the public — and if he does without a credible, science-based environmental review — he will have failed one of the biggest tests of his presidency.

"Hundreds of thousands of Americans standing up for their land, water and future have said 'no' to this dirty and dangerous pipeline. It is time for the president to unambiguously join them. We will campaign aggressively to encourage him to do so."

While the GOP has pushed the claim that the tar sands pipeline would bring much needed jobs to the U.S., Grist notes that "the only independent analysis conducted of the American job-creation potential of the Keystone XL pipeline finds that between 500 and 1,400 temporary construction jobs [PDF] will be created, with a negative long-term economic impact as gas prices rise in the Midwest and environmental costs are borne." The report further states "the new permanent U.S. pipeline jobs in the U.S. number as few as 50."

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