Detroit Automakers Lose Staunch Ally as Waxman Ousts Dingell on Key Committee

By Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 21, 2008

If beleaguered U.S. automakers did not have enough problems, Michigan Rep. John D. Dingell, their greatest congressional champion, was dethroned yesterday as chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee by Rep. Henry A. Waxman of California, an advocate of stiff measures against global warming.

The race pitted young Democrats against old, environmentalists against union backers and coastal liberals against Midwestern moderates in an early test of where the power in the 111th Congress will lie. Waxman's 137 to 122 victory demonstrated that the older, more industrial Democratic coalition is on its way to becoming a minority inside a new majority, a reality Dingell acknowledged after the vote.

"Well, this was clearly a change year, and I congratulate my colleague Henry Waxman on his success today," Dingell said in a statement.

Waxman's victory also signaled the rise of a younger, more environmentally conscious party eager to support the policies of President-elect Barack Obama. Waxman's supporters said his win probably would mean a smoother ride through Congress for Obama's energy agenda, which focuses on spending $150 billion on research for producing renewable fuels and 1 million new plug-in hybrid cars.

"It's the mantra of the Obama election. People want change," said Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.), who had rallied support for Waxman since he announced his bid the day after Obama's victory. "He'll work best with the new administration."

Dingell, 82, who was first elected to represent his Dearborn-based district in 1954, is set to become the longest-serving House member in history in February. He has been chairman or ranking Democrat of the energy committee since 1981, at times feuding with fellow Democrats, including Waxman, over efforts to impose fuel-efficiency standards on cars.

Waxman, 69, was elected to represent Beverly Hills in the post-Watergate class of 1974 and is the current chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee. He gained the support of as many as two-thirds of Democrats elected in the past two years, according to some of his allies, and had the backing of the nearly three dozen California Democrats, as well as key lawmakers in East Coast delegations.

In a two-hour closed-door meeting, junior members did not hesitate to take on Dingell, according to sources in the room. Rep. Bruce Braley (D-Iowa), who was elected in 2006 and was born in 1957, Dingell's third year in office, accused Dingell of burying key pieces of environmental legislation.

"The success of the next president is connected to this Congress," Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) told his colleagues, urging a vote for Waxman, according to a participant in the meeting. Cummings, 57, is considering challenging 74-year-old Rep. Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.) to replace Waxman as the oversight committee chairman.

Dingell's support came mostly from the "Old Bulls" -- more than a dozen committee chairmen; Rust Belt Democrats, whose supporters are manufacturing-union members; and the Congressional Black Caucus, whose members support a seniority system that was weakened by Waxman's victory.

"It's just been buried," Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.), the 78-year-old chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, said of the seniority system.

"Seniority is important, but it should not be a grant of property rights to be chairman for three decades or more," Waxman told reporters after the vote.

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