The vote amounts to a direct challenge to the White House, daring President Barack Obama to follow through on a threat earlier this month to veto the bill. The House of Representatives passed a similar measure Jan. 9.
"For jobs in this country, for energy security, for good trade relationships with our neighbor in Canada, for all the right reasons, it was important we pass the legislation in front of us today," Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said after the vote, which she heralded as evidence of a "return to regular order" over Senate gridlock and intransigence.
Nine Democratic senators also voted for the measure, which was introduced by Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., on Jan. 8: Michael Bennet of Colorado, Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Jon Tester of Montana, Mark Warner of Virginia and Tom Carper of Delaware.
It was unclear Thursday whether the House will hold another vote due to differences between its Keystone bill and the measure passed by the Senate, or if it instead would hold a bicameral conference with Senate leaders. Congressional supporters of the project lack the two-thirds majority needed to override Obama's expected veto. The 1,179-mile proposed pipeline requires the president’s approval because it crosses the border from Canada to the U.S.
Industry and environmental groups have fought a pitched battle over the pipeline extension, which was proposed in 2008.
The pipeline would carry crude from tar sands in Alberta, Canada, to refineries and the existing Keystone network in the U.S. TransCanada, the company hoping to build the pipeline, as well as oil producers and industry trade groups, say it would help ease U.S. reliance on oil from overseas, strengthen ties with Canada, support the energy sector and provide thousands of construction jobs.
Once completed, however, the project will provide only a few dozen permanent positions.
Opponents argue that building the pipeline could prove disastrous for combating climate change by enabling companies to expand production in the tar sands, where extracting crude emits far more heat-trapping carbon than traditional oil drilling. Obama has made curbing carbon emissions and addressing global warming a focus of his second term, and environmental groups argue Keystone XL runs counter to those goals.
"This is the only time in the history of the Senate that we have given such a big kiss to a private company," Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said ahead of the vote Thursday.
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., added, "Republicans are calling this a jobs bill, but the fact is that the Keystone would create only 35 permanent jobs – a drop in the bucket."
Obama has said he will only approve the project once the State Department completes a review to determine whether the pipeline extension is in the “national interest,” and if it will “not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.” He has said congressional efforts to approve the project inappropriately circumvent the authority of the executive branch.
Industry groups called on the president to ultimately sign the measure once it reaches his desk.
"It’s time to approve Keystone XL so we can transport Canadian and American oil to fuel the everyday lives of the American people," TransCanada CEO Russ Girling said in a statement. "We look forward to a decision by the U.S. administration to approve the construction of Keystone XL."
Environmental groups argued otherwise.
“From destructive tar sands mining to its risky route through sensitive wildlife habitat to its polluting end product, it’s clear that the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline would be bad for wildlife at every step of the way," Jim Lyon, vice president for conservation policy at the National Wildlife Federation, said in a statement. "Thankfully, we expect any legislation to short-circuit the Keystone XL review process to be vetoed by President Obama."