WASHINGTON — Start the clock.
The Obama administration has 60 days to make a decision on the Keystone XL pipeline under legislation the president signed Friday — legislation that also extends the payroll tax cut, unemployment benefits and other provisions.
But the U.S. State Department has said it can't wrap up its review process that quickly and will simply turn down the permit. White House officials confirmed to the New York Times this week that the president would follow that advice.
Republicans pushed for the deadline as a condition of supporting the tax-cut extension, but even some among their own ranks were questioning the approach.
Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., voted against the bill for reasons unrelated to the pipeline, but he said it would have been a harder vote if the legislation had required outright approval of the project rather than simply forcing a decision by the administration.
"I worry that President Obama, when forced into a corner, will make the decision to kill Keystone," Kirk said.
Along the same lines, Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., suggested to reporters after the Senate vote on the bill that GOP lawmakers had been played for fools when it came to the Keystone deadline.
"We feel we're giving them the sleeve off a vest," Schumer said.
"The bottom line is that Secretary of State (Hillary) Clinton has said if they rush the process, they're going to end the pipeline, so it doesn't make much sense, and the president was totally on board with that strategy."
The administration had wanted to put off a decision on the project until 2013, well after a new route had been determined through Nebraska in order to move the pipeline away from the state's environmentally sensitive Sand Hills.
So the question now is whether the administration will try to find a way to turn down the permit but allow the company behind it, TransCanada, to come back with a new application that could be decided on in 2013.
Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., said that would be a dangerous approach.
"The risk he runs is that some court somewhere, if this is challenged, would say, 'Well, that denial sends them all back to square one on the environmental process and everything,' " he said. "I think it would be a very risky decision by the president to deny it."
The environmental review process for Keystone XL has already taken 3½ years, which is why Republicans say the administration should have all the information it needs to approve the pipeline.
Johanns and others note that the legislation exempts Nebraska's rerouting process from the deadline.
Environmental groups have called on the president to deny the permit. The Natural Resources Defense Council said Republicans have "inadvertently given the president no choice but to reject Keystone XL — an unexpected holiday gift that will help us fight climate change and promote clean energy."
Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., who supports the pipeline but wants to protect the Ogallala Aquifer, was asked whether a permit denial would end the project forever.
"It's a good question," Baucus said. "You've got a lot of wise people trying to figure out a third way on Keystone — not just black and white, yes and no."
The payroll tax cut was extended for two months, so the deadline for a pipeline decision will be coming up about the same time the payroll tax cut is expiring again.
That means that if the president moves to kill the project, Republicans could make a certain approval of the pipeline part of the negotiations over a longer-term extension of the payroll tax cut.
Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said Republicans will continue to push for the project because it's important for creating jobs and improving the country's infrastructure.
"We need to get the project going," Hoeven said.
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