With the clock running out for rewriting the Clean Air Act this year, the House Energy and Commerce Committee is locked in a battle of wills between two stubborn lawmakers who are increasingly frustrated with each other's refusal to budge.
Committee Chairman John D. Dingell (D-Mich.) reconvened the markup of the nation's major air pollution law last week after a three-month hiatus. Since then, the committee has been caught between Dingell, who wants the committee to approve the pending rewrite, and Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), who says he would prefer to keep existing law rather than pass "the wish list of industry."
Both men, who cooperate more often than not on other matters, have been playing parliamentary hardball over the Clean Air Act.
With time on his side, Waxman has forestalled committee meetings by invoking a House rule that basically prevents the committee from meeting while the full House is considering legislation.
And when the committee has met, Waxman has angered some colleagues -- even some who agree with him on the merits -- by offering amendment after amendment and, at times, invoking his right to have them read aloud.
Dingell has complied with that requirement by having the clerk read the amendments at tongue-twister pace, over Waxman's objection that the reading is unintelligible.
Yesterday, wielding his gavel with ear-splitting force, Dingell refused to let Waxman offer an amendment. After a wait of an hour and three-quarters to try to assemble a quorum, Dingell was then forced to recess the session when Waxman objected to the absence of enough members to proceed.
Dingell, who is accustomed to getting his way on the committee, has spent more time working on the clean-air bill than any other matter during the past two years. He says the wrangling has bottled up several other major pieces of legislation.
"I will continue trying to make the committee function," vowed Dingell, who has threatened to call evening sessions if he is blocked during the day. "I'm not one to give up."
"It's very upsetting," said Waxman, who expressed concern that Dingell was manipulating procedure "as a device for cutting off" Waxman's power to offer amendments, of which scores are ready to go. "We're both invoking the rules, we're both maneuvering for the best position."
Committee members expressed concern that the disagreements between the two men would make progress on the Clean Air Act even harder as time and tempers grow shorter. Deadlines for states to comply with pollution controls will expire in December, and the Environmental Protection Agency has threatened to enforce them to the letter if the act is not changed.
"It's a kind of institutional self-immolation," said Rep. Al Swift (D-Wash.), who is generally Waxman's ally but complained publicly last week about the "clearly dilatory tactics."
Rep. Marc L. Marks (R-Pa.) last week helped arrange the first negotiating session between the two after Waxman won a key vote on an amendment. But even that wasn't easy.
Dingell was willing to talk with Waxman but didn't want to initiate the meeting. "He's got my phone number if he wants to talk," Dingell said, according to Marks. Waxman, meanwhile, having just prevailed on a vote, thought Dingell ought to hold out the olive branch. The impasse was solved when Waxman agreed to make the first move.
"The kind of relationship that has developed is not normal procedure," Swift said.