WASHINGTON – Rep. Henry Waxman — a liberal ally of Speaker Nancy Pelosi — has wrested the chairmanship of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee from veteran Rep. John Dingell when the new Congress convenes in January.
Waxman, a California liberal and avid environmentalist and booster of health care programs, toppled Dingell Thursday on a vote of 137-122 in the Democratic Party caucus, capping a bitter fight within party ranks.
Dingell has been the top Democrat on the panel for 28 years and is an old-school supporter of the auto industry. Waxman has complained that the committee has been too slow to address environmental issues like global warming.
"The argument we made was that we needed a change for the committee to have the leadership that will work with this administration and members in both the House and the Senate in order to get important issues passed in health care, environmental protection, in energy policy," Waxman said after the vote.
"The next two years are critical," said Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., who spoke on Waxman's behalf in the closed-door caucus. "It's not personal. It's about the American people demanding that we embrace change and work with the president on critical issues of climate change and energy and health care."
Waxman, 69, is an accomplished legislator. He had chaired the Energy and Commerce health and environment subcommittee for 16 years and won a series of piecemeal expansions of the Medicaid health care program for the poor that added many children to the program. He's also taken on the tobacco companies.
The Energy and Commerce panel is one of the most important House committees, with sweeping jurisdiction over energy, the environment, consumer protection, telecommunications and health care programs such as Medicaid and the popular State Children's Health Insurance Program.
Waxman has been the top Democrat on the Oversight and Government Reform Committee for the last 12 years. Since Waxman became chairman of that panel two years ago, it has taken the Bush administration to task over global warming and allegations that it muzzled government scientists. It also has investigated the White House's political operation, the use of steroids in sports and, most recently, abuses behind the financial collapse.
Dingell, 82, has been the committee's top Democrat for 28 years and is an important ally of automakers and electric utilities. He's considered one of the House's premier legislators, with a lengthy track record on health, consumer issues and the environment, among other things.
Dingell's defenders said he had done nothing to deserve being dumped, pointing to the panel's busy workload over the last two years, including successfully enacting an energy bill that raised automobile fuel economy standards to 35 miles per gallon by 2020.
"I think it was highly inappropriate," said Rep. Rick Boucher, D-Va. "There was no obvious reason for it other than the desire for another person to chair the committee.
"Seniority is important," Waxman told reporters. "But it should not grant the priority rights to hold a chairmanship for three decades."
Driving Waxman's bid was the issue of global warming, a pet cause of President-elect Barack Obama. Waxman is expected to more aggressively attack this problem and is expected to move legislation with tougher emissions standards than Dingell would have.
Environmentalists say Dingell has acted too slowly on global warming, despite releasing a bill last month. The measure was a poke in the eye to Waxman and Pelosi, D-Calif., since it would prevent states like California from setting tougher auto emissions standards than the federal government.
"Waxman's victory is a breath of fresh air — of clean air. It was a stunning defeat for the corporate lobbyists on K Street," said Frank O'Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch. "It shows that a majority of the House Democrats are ready to work with the incoming Obama administration on effective global warming legislation."
In a statement congratulating Waxman, Dingell acknowledged that it is a "year of change." He renewed his commitment "to protecting and creating jobs, to providing health care for all Americans, to working to getting our state and nation's economy back on track."
Waxman's coup now puts Californians in charge of the committees that will spearhead the regulation of the gases blamed for global warming in both the House and Senate. California has taken the lead on addressing the problem and is suing the Bush administration for rejecting its request to reduce greenhouse gases from motor vehicle tailpipes.
As Waxman took over the helm of the Energy and Commerce committee, his counterpart in the Senate — Sen. Barbara Boxer — vowed to take quick action on a bill capping greenhouse gases.
Pelosi is a home state ally of Waxman and has tangled with Dingell in the past, but she has not publicly taken sides in the battle and did not pressure members privately to back Waxman. But her support of Waxman was well known and played a role in the strong tally.