McConnell Demands Keystone XL In Any Payroll Tax Agreement

This post was updated at 1:30 p.m.

It’s gut check time for Congressional Democrats on the payroll tax cut bill.

Regarding that legislation, Don Stewart, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell emails me with the following statement: “The Leader will not support any bill without the Keystone XL language as part of the agreement.”

House Speaker John Boehner is also insisting that he’ll amend any Senate-passed payroll tax cut bill to add the Keystone provision to it, if it’s not already in there. So Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and President Obama now have a choice: stick to their guns and object to the provision — at the risk of allowing the payroll tax cut (and unemployment insurance and the Medicare “doc fix”) to expire? Or give in to the GOP.It would be a political embarrassment if they cave. But the policy implications are much less clear. The provision would require the administration to decide within two months whether to greenlight a pipeline that would run from the Canadian tar sands across the U.S. border, through the plains states, to the Gulf of Mexico. Specifically, it would require the State Department to issue the permit for the pipeline, unless President Obama determines it’s not in the national interest. It’s a make or break issue for environmentalists, who strongly oppose the Keystone pipeline — for domestic environmental risks, yes, but much more so because they believe there are enough fossil fuels in those tar sands to make climate change irreversible.

The administration wanted to postpone its decision on the pipeline until after the election. And the State Department, which has jurisdiction over the decision, has warned that by forcing the issue, Congress will likely kill it.

Republicans know that, but they want to pick the fight anyway. And if they win, they’ll press Obama not to give the pipeline the thumbs down.