“We could be breaking ground right now!” Terry told the Washington Examiner as he drove from an Omaha roundtable with local manufacturers.
Terry, a Republican who is serving his eighth term representing Nebraska's 2nd district, has been a leading proponent of the pipeline, which is on hold while President Obama decides whether to grant the permit that would allow the project to finally go forward.
“I really, truly believe the president does not want to sign the permit, but he knows he can’t just come out and say he’s killing it,” Terry said. “So, delaying it and doing nothing is their goal and it’s my job to keep it in front of them.”
Terry has been a low-key presence on Capitol Hill, a solid conservative who almost always votes with the GOP leadership. His name isn't atop many major bills, but the Keystone XL project has provided a unique opportunity for him to elevate his profile, in part because a major portion of the project crosses his state.
“Lee Terry is not one of those guys who feels like he has to be in front of the camera all of the time,” University of Nebraska Omaha political science professor Randall Adkins told the Examiner.
A lifelong Nebraskan, Terry, 52, still lives in Omaha with his wife Robyn and three sons. He graduated from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and then Creighton University School of Law before serving eight years on the Omaha City Council. Terry came to Washington after winning election to the House in 1998.
With his new platform, Terry is not shy about pushing for the pipeline.
The Keystone XL project would transport 830,000 barrels of crude oil daily from Alberta, Canada, along 1,179 miles of pipeline ending in Steel City, Neb. The second leg of the project would extend the pipeline south to Gulf Coast refineries.
But a Nebraska judge last month invalidated the state's approval of the pipeline route, which would use eminent domain to claim thousands of acres of private land.
TransCanada, the company that wants to build the pipeline, now lacks an approved route through Nebraska, giving Obama a new reason to delay his decision.
Terry said that Obama should give the green light to the project quickly and not wait months for an appeal of the court ruling or the approval of a new pipeline route through his state.
“I’m going to hound him on this issue,” Terry vowed. “If Obama wants to wait until he leaves office and does nothing, I’m going to follow him out the door on Keystone.”
Keystone XL's approval would also be a feather in Terry's cap, boosting him in a tough upcoming election. In his quest for a ninth term, Terry faces both a GOP primary opponent and a Democratic challenger.
History suggests his Democratic opponent, Brad Ashford, an Omaha state senator and former Republican who recently switched parties, will be the tougher rival.
Democrats equal Republicans in the district, with each party claiming about 120,000 voters. The district also includes 75,000 registered independents. Democrats in the district are becoming more organized and a bigger threat to Terry. In 2012, he won an eighth term by just two percentage points, despite vastly outspending Democratic opponent Doug Ewing.
“Now he’s got to work at it,” Adkins told the Examiner. “He needs to take better care of what he says and take more moderate positions on the issues. The problem is, among Republican constituents, he may not be conservative enough.”
Terry invited widespread criticism and threats to challenge him in the primaries when he rejected the idea of surrendering his own Congressional salary during the 16-day federal government shutdown in October.
Terry later apologized but not before his comments went viral on the Internet, casting him as an insensitive Republican.
Terry's primary opponent, Dan Frei, is promoting an internal poll that suggests voters in the district want a more conservative and Tea Party-minded Republican.
Frei, a business technology consultant who has never held public office, is considered the underdog in the race and will likely be vastly outspent by Terry, who has a war chest of more than $700,000.
Frei points to Terry's frequent alignment with the GOP leadership, which recently cut deals to raise the nation's $17.3 trillion debt ceiling and reduce savings from the sequester.
“This race is as much against the establishment, and against [Speaker John] Boehner and politics as usual, as it is about Lee Terry,” Frei said in an interview. “Lee Terry has just become part of the club.”
If so, the club has paid off for Terry, who in this Congress was elevated into the GOP leadership with a subcommittee chairmanship.
He heads the powerful Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade. It’s an important assignment for Terry, whose district is considered a major financial center and is home to five Fortune 500 companies, including ConAgra Foods, First National Bank and TD Ameritrade.
“I have my own internal polls,” Terry told the Examiner. “And we are doing well. Very well. I feel good going into this year.”