Power change on Hill

Waxman is chosen over Dingell to lead key panel

Democrats likely to tackle global warming

Obama's Transition

November 21, 2008|By Janet Hook and Rich Simon | Janet Hook and Rich Simon,Tribune Washington Bureau

Winning a clash of political titans, Rep. Henry A. Waxman, the liberal Los Angeles powerbroker, captured a House post yesterday that will put him at the center of efforts to advance President-elect Barack Obama's expected plans to curb global warming, develop alternative fuels and expand health insurance coverage.

Waxman's victory, in a secret ballot of his House Democratic colleagues, gives him the chairmanship of the influential Energy and Commerce Committee, which will consider some of Obama's most ambitious domestic plans.

The 137-122 vote stripped the chairmanship from Michigan Rep. John D. Dingell, the longest-serving member in the House, and marked an unusual departure from the seniority system that usually dictates how the chamber operates.

The changing of the guard will have significant implications for Obama's expected proposal to curb global warming and for other environmental policy.

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.

Dingell, an auto industry champion who represents greater Detroit, has been criticized for slowing or blocking action on stricter vehicle emissions standards, fuel-economy improvements and other efforts to regulate the auto industry. Those stances have pitted him against Waxman for decades, and environmentalists feared that Dingell would be a drag on Obama's efforts to curb air pollution.

Dingell, 82, was elected to the House in 1955 - six years before Obama was born. He now becomes part of the wave of congressional "Old Bulls" who have retired or been toppled by the tides of change that carried Obama and other Democrats to victory in this month's elections.

In the Senate, Ted Stevens of Alaska, the longest-serving Republican, lost his bid for re-election after a conviction on corruption charges. Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, the longest serving Democrat, was eased out of his post as chairman of the Appropriations Committee. Retirees include such long-standing members as Sens. John Warner of Virginia and Pete V. Domenici of New Mexico.

Dingell, who has been using a wheelchair in the Capitol as he recovers from knee surgery, argued that he is an effective legislator and that the House would suffer from upsetting the seniority system. His defeat is a sign that, for the incoming generation of politicians, such arguments might no longer hold sway.

"Well, this was clearly a change year," Dingell said after his defeat.

Dingell's loss is also a blow to the U.S. auto industry at a time when it says it needs federal help to avoid collapse. Some business interests worry that Waxman will steer the committee sharply to the left.

"Whether you agree with him or not, Chairman Dingell has long been respected as an insightful, reasonable and pragmatic legislator," said Thomas Pyle, president of the Institute for Energy Research, a pro-business research group. "These are not qualities for which Mr. Waxman is known."

Pyle said Waxman would likely bring "sweeping changes" to the committee's focus, "which isn't good news if you're in the business of American energy or other kinds of free-market commerce."

By contrast, environmentalists hailed Waxman's promotion.

"It's a whole new day for the environment," said Dan Becker, director of the Safe Climate Campaign, an environmental advocacy group. "The committee through which all major environmental legislation has to pass has gone from someone hostile to environmental protection to a real champion."

The Energy and Commerce Committee will be a battleground for other Obama priorities, such as requiring utilities to generate more electricity from cleaner energy sources.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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