Keystone – The Canary in the Congressional Coal Mine

If the Keystone debate is any indication, the atmosphere in the new GOP Congress is much healthier – and less toxic – than it may seem.

On Friday, just three days after 25 House members mounted an ill-conceived “coup” against House Speaker John Boehner, all but one of those members joined Boehner and every other Republican in backing the approval of the Keystone XL pipeline. Joining those Republicans were 28 Democrats who defied the Obama administration’s veto threat against the bill. The bill passed 266 to 153.

This Monday, the Senate cleared a key procedural hurdle by a vote of 63 to 32 on its version of the legislation, which mirrors the House bill.

On the Senate vote, seven Democrats not only broke with Obama but also defied their authoritarian leadership team who sided with the president. Those Democrats included Michael Bennet of Colorado, Tom Carper of Delaware, Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, and Jon Tester of Montana.

Joe Manchin

Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia (center) is the Democratic co-sponsor of the Senate’s Keystone bill and one of 9 Democrats expected to side with Republicans on the matter.

These votes are important because they represent the first test of the GOP’s game for this session, which is essentially this: 1) Pass conservative bills in the House, 2) Pass bills in the Senate as close to the House version as possible by appealing to red and purple state Democrats, 3) Send the bills to president’s desk that force him to either sign or veto sensible legislation with bipartisan support – a win-win scenario for the GOP.

The Keystone debate is also the first test of the GOP’s commitment to “regular order” and open debate. As Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said before Monday’s vote, “I know senators from both sides are hungry for a real Senate debate. I know they want to offer amendments. I know they’re anxious to finally have their voices — and the voices of the people they represent — heard.”

By embarking on an open debate amendment process that will consume much of January, McConnell will establishment himself – in a classical sense – as the Senate’s true liberal, one committed to the Enlightenment era understanding of free speech embraced by our founders.

“Some say passing Keystone in the face of veto threat is mere posturing, but that’s how controversial bills pass.”

McConnell’s move will give the Senate an unprecedented opportunity to carefully consider the Left’s well-funded environmental agenda, a privilege not extended to liberals by former Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.

The Senate, of course, has a lot of ground to cover before the Keystone bill hits the president’s desk but the GOP is operating from a position of strength, intellectual integrity and moral clarity.

Some say passing Keystone in the face of veto threat is mere posturing, but that’s how controversial bills pass. In the 1990’s President Bill Clinton vetoed GOP versions of welfare reform twice before he signed one into law.

Mitch McConnell, Lisa Murkowski, John Hoeven

Majority Leader McConnell (right) has pledged an open amendment process to Sen. Hoeven’s (center) Keystone bill, a sharp change from the Senate under Democratic Minority Leader Harry Reid.

Even if Congress can’t force President Obama to surrender or negotiate, the GOP will win in the court of public opinion if Keystone dies by veto.

The next test will be whether this game plan will work on more complex matters like the budget, appropriations bills and even tax and entitlement reform. On these issues, the public will forgive the GOP for trying and failing, but they won’t forgive them for not trying. A session that ends with an omnibus spending bill, for instance, will be unforgivable if it isn’t preceded by a year of honest effort and hard work.

Regardless, the Keystone debate is an early indication the GOP Congress is off to a healthy start. Reports of a toxic atmosphere are greatly exaggerated.

John Hart is Editor-in-Chief of Opportunity Lives. You can follow him on Twitter @johnhart333.