Washington (CNN)Senate debate over the Keystone XL pipeline formally began on Tuesday after Democrats dropped a procedural objection that was delaying action on the contentious bill.
Keystone debate moves ahead
"It is well past time," said Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, the Republican chair of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. "We would like to see this pipeline moving but we've to get it through this body."
The bipartisan bill would approve construction of the long-stalled pipeline that would carry oil from Canada through the center of the United States to the Gulf Coast.
The measure passed the GOP-led House last week and has the support of several Senate Democrats, although not enough to override the expected veto by President Barack Obama. Most Democrats cite environmental concerns in opposing the project, but Obama says he opposes the bill because it would take the decision-making process out of the executive branch.
The No. 2 Senate Democrat, Dick Durbin of Illinois, chastised Republicans for making Keystone the first bill to come to the Senate floor in the new Congress.
"The Republicans' highest priority, their number one bill now that they have majority status in the Senate is approval of a pipeline project that benefits one company, a Canadian company to create 35 permanent jobs," he said. "This special interest small-ball effort is not a national economic or energy policy or plan to make America energy independent"
Republicans argue the pipeline will be "safer environmentally," according to Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, because right now the Canadian oil is being transported south by trucks and trains.
Republicans also are stressing the project will create thousands of jobs, figures Democrats hotly dispute.
"This is vital energy infrastructure. It's about energy, it's about jobs," said Sen. John Hoeven, R-North Dakota, the bill's main sponsor.
Even though it isn't likely to become law, the bill has become an important vehicle for Republicans and Democrats -- who have not debated an energy bill in several years -- to push for votes on a wide range of policies. Lawmakers have used the measure to address the nation's energy needs and to raise concerns about the impact of fossil fuels on the environment and climate change.
Debate is expected to last into at least next week as senators consider a long list of amendments from each party. Many of those proposals are aimed at causing political pain for the other side. For instance, progressive Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont, wants Republicans to vote on the question of whether climate change is real and -- if it is -- whether it is caused by manmade pollution.
"The American people need to know whether Congress is listening to the overwhelming majority of scientists when it comes to climate change," he said when introducing his amendment.
Democrats accused Republican leaders of secretly moving to block a vote on Sanders's amendment. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell flatly denied that was true.
"Nobody is blocking any amendments," said McConnell who, in fact, has promised to allow votes on a number of amendments from both parties, something Democrats rarely permitted in recent years when they controlled the Senate.
Republicans plan to push a wide array of their own amendments, including one from Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, that would approve the export of crude oil and natural gas, something opposed by many Democrats.
No votes on amendments are planned until next week. Senators are out Wednesday and Thursday for their respective party retreats and the Senate is not in session Monday because of the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday.