By Timothy Gardner
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Senate easily passed on Friday a symbolic measure approving the Canada to Texas Keystone XL oil pipeline, a move backers said showed strong support for a bill that would give Congress power to green light the project later in the year.
The amendment to the budget plan, sponsored by Senator John Hoeven, a Republican from North Dakota, passed 62 to 37.
It was symbolic because the budget is a blueprint that will not become law. But the measure was selected out of hundreds of others for a vote and was approved by a strong majority in the 100-seat chamber led by Democrats.
White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters earlier this month that the approval process for pipelines crossing international borders belongs with the State Department.
The State Department must finalize an environmental assessment. Then it will have 90 days to decide whether the project is in the country's interest.
President Barack Obama is expected to make a final decision on the pipeline late this summer.
The pipeline permit has been pending for nearly five years and supporters of the project say they cannot risk more hold-ups.
"I think it shows strong support for the project," Hoeven said in an interview. "I think where we are is the president needs to move forward and approve it, and I think if he doesn't, we've shown there's approval to do it Congressionally."
The budget passed by the House of Representatives this week also authorized construction of the pipeline.
Minutes before the vote on Hoeven's amendment another measure to study Keystone further, sponsored by Barbara Boxer, the chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, was defeated 33 to 66.
TransCanada Corp's more than 800,000-barrel-per-day pipeline would link Canada's oil sands, the world's third richest oil deposit, with refineries in Texas.
Last week, Hoeven and Montana Democrat Max Baucus introduced a bill that would give Congress the power to approve the pipeline, taking it away from the Obama administration. There is a similar bill in the House of Representatives and both could be voted on later in the spring.
Hoeven's bill claims Congress has the authority to approve the TransCanada pipeline under the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution. Lawyers at the non-partisan Congressional Research Service wrote an analysis last year that said Congress would likely be within its Constitutional authority if it chose to force approval.
Supporters of the $5.3-billion pipeline say it would increase North American energy security and pour capital into the economy. Environmentalists say the pipeline would increase emissions of greenhouse gases.
Pipeline opponents said the amendment was a futile effort.
"The only thing today's nonbinding, symbolic vote underscores on Keystone XL is the fact that this is President Obama's decision alone," said Becky Bond, of CREDO, the activist arm of the CREDO mobile network.
Hoeven's larger bill would likely need 60 votes to pass. Its supporters may try to attach it to must-pass legislation that Obama would find hard to veto.
Hoeven tried to pass legislation that would allow Congress to approve Keystone last year, but it was short four votes.
(Reporting by Timothy Gardner and Richard Cowan; Editing by Bernadette Baum and Carol Bishopric)