WASHINGTON – Democrats are fighting over control of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and the outcome could affect President-elect Obama's efforts to limit the heat-trapping gases blamed for global warming.
Obama has said he wants to act quickly on climate change. But bipartisan support could be tested if liberal California Rep. Henry Waxman unseats the chairman, Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich. The committee's top Democrat for 28 years, Dingell is an ally of important of automakers and electric utilities.
The committee will take the lead on legislation to cap greenhouse gases and establish a multibillion-dollar market in carbon dioxide. Companies would buy and sell the right to pollute.
Last month, Dingell and Rep. Rick Boucher, D-Va., released a draft of a global warming bill for reducing greenhouse gases by 80 percent by 2050. That reduction is in line with what Obama has proposed.
Environmentalists and some liberal Democrats, however, see Dingell as an obstacle to stricter fuel economy standards for cars and trucks and cleaner fuels, as Obama also has advocated. They see in Waxman, whose district includes Beverly Hills, an opportunity to push through a more ambitious environmental agenda now that Democrats have expanded their majorities in Congress and will take over the White House.
Dingell's supporters say his legislation has a better chance of winning support from some Republicans and conservative Democrats, many of them on his 57-member committee, because it slowly reduces emissions to buy time for the technology to develop.
Liberals and environmentalists complain that Dingell's bill could pre-empt states such as California that have set up their own carbon trading systems and bar the Environmental Protection Agency and state agencies from setting auto mileage standards different from the Transportation Department's.
"The prospects for success will be much better under Chairman Dingell on this issue and many others," said Boucher, who heads the subcommittee on air quality.
Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Pa., who was working the phones to drum up support for Dingell, said claims by Waxman's supporters that Dingell would not advance climate legislation quickly were "not based in reality."
"This climate change bill is not a slam dunk," said Doyle. "It is not like we have overwhelming votes in the House and Senate."
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., have not taken sides. Obama's camp is also staying out of it.
But it wouldn't be the first time Dingell has sparred with Pelosi or Waxman, a close ally of the speaker.
In 2002, Pelosi supported Dingell's opponent in the Michigan primary. Last year, in a move that was viewed as undercutting Dingell's committee jurisdiction on the global warming issue, she created a special panel led by liberal Massachusetts Rep. Edward Markey to make the case for bigger reductions in greenhouse gases.
Waxman this year signed onto legislation with Markey that would ban any new coal-fired power plants built without technology to capture carbon dioxide. Dingell favors a more tempered approach. He has signaled his support for a bill advanced by Boucher that would establish a $1 billion annual fund generated by fees on electricity generation to develop carbon capture technology.
Neither Dingell nor Waxman would comment directly about the tussle. Each side claimed to have enough votes among Democrats for the committee's top spot.
In a letter to members of the committee, Dingell did not refer to Waxman and cited Pelosi: "The country must be governed from the middle."
Waxman, 69, has headed the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that has spent the past two years taking the Bush administration to task over global warming and muzzling government scientists. It has also investigated the White House's political operation, steroids in sports and, most recently, abuses behind the financial collapse.
He wrote a global warming bill last year that attracted 155 co-sponsors, all Democrats, well below the 218 needed to pass the House.