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By Lisa Mascaro, Kathleen Hennessey and Maria L. La Ganga, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — A veto showdown escalated Friday between President Barack Obama and the new Republican-led Congress over the Keystone XL pipeline after a state court ruled in favor of the project and the House approved a bill advancing it.

The international pipeline is a cornerstone of the new GOP agenda in Congress. With Friday’s developments, Republicans all but taunted the president to quit standing in the way of the project and allow it to be approved.

“President Obama is now out of excuses for blocking the Keystone pipeline,” said Speaker John A. Boehner (R-OH). “It’s time to start building.”

“Hallelujah!” said Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), reading about the court’s decision before the House vote. “We’ve got good news for the president.”

The House easily passed the Keystone bill, 266-153, with support from some Democrats, and the Senate is expected to approve it once debate begins next week after clearing a filibuster.

The White House, though, doubled down on the president’s promised veto, arguing that Obama would not be rushed into a decision.

The administration has been reviewing the project at the State Department, and waiting for the legal process in Nebraska to finish.

“We are going to let the process play out,” said White House spokesman Eric Schultz, traveling with Obama in Tennessee. “If presented to the president, he will veto the bill.”

The president has reason to remain unfazed by the flurry of action: Congress, even with its emboldened GOP majority, does not appear to have the votes necessary to override a veto.

As gas prices have tumbled over the last six months, the long-running debate over the ambitious pipeline being proposed by TransCanada has become more of a political exercise than a practical one.

The $5.3 billion project, one of the largest infrastructure projects proposed for the U.S., would carry oil from the tar sands of Canada through the nation’s heartland and, eventually, to the Gulf Coast. Much of the oil would be exported.

Opponents warn that building more capacity for the oil industry will worsen the nation’s dependence on fossil fuels, and global warming.

But supporters argue that development of the pipeline will wean the country from foreign oil suppliers and create needed domestic jobs.

Both views have shortcomings. While the State Department estimates about 42,000 jobs would be created during the construction of the pipeline, permanent jobs would be fewer than 50. The 800,000 daily gallons of oil expected to be pumped are a blip on the climate change radar.

But politically, the project has become a cause célèbre on both sides, and neither appears ready to back down.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell vowed the pipeline vote would be the first of the new Congress even before Republicans were sworn into office.

“President Obama has no excuse to further delay the Keystone XL project,” said Sen. John Hoeven (R-SD), the bill’s author.

Next week’s Senate vote will test McConnell’s ability to lead his new majority, as he has promised a free-wheeling floor debate with as many amendments as senators want to offer.

Democrats already have a package of amendments at the ready — including one that would prevent the oil from the pipeline from being exported and another that would require all steel, iron and other construction components to come from domestic manufacturers.

At its core, though, the congressional legislation would remove the decision-making authority from the administration, allowing Congress to, in essence, approve the project.

Danielle Droitsch, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Canada Project, said the day’s developments don’t “make it right for Congress to act as the permitting agency, usurp presidential authority or short-circuit the president’s obligation to decide whether the pipeline is good for the country.”

AFP Photo/Spencer Platt

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