J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Democrats Tip Their Hand on Climate-Change Fight as Senate Keystone Bill Advances

Failed amendment from Bernie Sanders sets up floor debate on climate science.

Senate Republicans advanced pro-Keystone XL legislation to the Senate floor Thursday, while Democrats offered their strategy for making that process as painful as possible.

The Energy Committee advanced the measure on a 13-9 vote, with all Republicans and West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin (who is a cosponsor of the bill) voting for it.

Vermont independent Bernie Sanders, who caucuses with Democrats, pitched an amendment in an Energy Committee markup on the bill that would have put the Senate on record as saying that climate change is real and caused by human activity. Republicans voted to table the language, but that's Democrats' point: to put their rival party on record as opposing climate science.

It's a strategy Democrats will employ again on the Senate floor, where debate on the pipeline bill starts next week. The legislation has 60 cosponsors, and three additional Democrats have voted for the pipeline in the past but are not listed. But that still leaves supporters short of the 67 votes needed to override a veto, although sponsors say they hope the open amendment process will gin up more yes votes.

No amendments were attached to the legislation that cleared committee, but Thursday's markup did offer an early preview of what's to come in an anticipated free-wheeling energy debate.

Sanders's amendment would also put the Senate on record as saying that "climate change has already caused devastating problems in the United States and around the world." A fourth line also states that "it is imperative that the United States transform its energy system away from fossil fuels and toward energy efficiency and sustainable energy."

It was the last line that drew an objection from Manchin, who said that he didn't oppose the climate change language but would like to see the amendment recognize the role of clean coal and other fossil fuels in the energy mix. Manchin tried to amend the amendment to replace the energy efficiency language with a line that would note the importance of investing in fossil fuel technology.

Manchin's effort was set aside as the Sanders amendment was tabled, but does show a potential strategy for political cover for coal-state Democrats, who can vote against the amendment for not recognizing fossil fuels and dodge an on-record climate statement.

Democrats have said they'll pitch other amendments that would bar exports of oil shipped through the pipeline and require American-made materials and labor in construction—a pair of messaging measures aimed at undercutting the Republican argument that this pipeline would help the U.S. economy.

Republican Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio said today that he'll bring up a pared-back version of his bipartisan energy-efficiency bill, crafted with New Hampshire Democrat Jeanne Shaheen, as an amendment to the bill when it reaches the floor. The slimmed-down version includes four provisions from his package that had passed the House, including ones on efficiency for water heaters and standards for federal buildings.

Shaheen said earlier this week that she didn't want to see the package tied to Keystone, given the White House's veto threat.