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.
Some moderate to conservative Democrats viewed the vote as a rebuke by the caucus's liberal wing. "I cannot believe we did what we just did," said Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (S.D.), incoming chairman of the "Blue Dog" caucus of fiscally conservative Democrats.
Despite House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's public neutrality, Rangel accused her of tacitly supporting Waxman because her closest allies in the House ran his campaign and she did not intervene to stop his bid.
"Not playing a role is playing a role," Rangel said, suggesting that reporters were "crazy" if they doubted that Pelosi worked behind the scenes for Waxman.
Dingell's defeat was the latest blow to elder statesmen on Capitol Hill. Earlier this month, Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), who turned 91 yesterday and is the longest-serving senator in history, stepped down under pressure as chairman of the Appropriations Committee, citing Obama's election as the proper time to yield his power.
"It just signals the change, the sea change that we're facing. And it's a good sea change. It's momentous," Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chairman of the Senate's environment committee, said upon the news of Waxman's victory.
Dingell has worked on some environmental legislation, helping pass the Clean Air Act of 1990 and the raising of fuel-efficiency standards on the auto industry last year. But he has resisted previous efforts to raise fuel-efficiency standards, and environmentalists view him as an impediment to progress.
Pelosi circumvented Dingell last year in creating a temporary global warming committee chaired by Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), a close ally.
Younger Democrats saw those intra-party fights about environmental policy as a thing of the past. "This had a lot more to do with where the caucus is going in terms of public policy," said Rep. Jackie Speier (Calif.), elected earlier this year to replace the late Tom Lantos.
Republicans said Democrats veered sharply to the left with Waxman. "This decision sends a troubling signal from a Majority that has promised to govern from the center. They moved away from Chairman Dingell because he is committed to approaching energy and environmental issues in a manner that protects American jobs," House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said in a statement.
Pelosi vowed that "House Democrats will move forward from this vote with unity." But bitter feelings lingered among Dingell supporters. At a Democratic meeting a few hours after the Waxman vote, Rep. Bart Stupak (Mich.), one of Dingell's closest friends, accused Waxman supporters of shutting Dingell allies out of an advisory committee that on Wednesday recommended that the full caucus approve Waxman as chairman.
The vote may cause other senior lawmakers to begin grappling with their own political mortality. Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), the 79-year-old chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said he had not thought about a challenge to his gavel until a reporter suggested it.
"It's a signal that some of the style of the old guard has now gone out of style," he said.