Waxman ousts Dingell for energy and commerce post

The vote opens a vacancy atop the Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., ousted Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., Thursday as chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee in a Democratic Caucus vote that would have seemed far-fetched two weeks ago. The secret ballot vote was 137-122.

Dingell, who has served as chairman or ranking member of the panel since 1981, becomes chairman emeritus.

"I am gratified," Waxman said later in a speech that included praise of Dingell. "It was a contentious race. It was a close race."

Dingell did not address reporters, but issued a statement: "This was clearly a change year, and I congratulate my colleague Henry Waxman on his success today ... What will never change is my commitment to the working men and women of the 15th Congressional District of Michigan who have honored me with the opportunity to represent them here in Washington."

Thursday's vote completes a surprise coup led by a group of mostly California liberals close to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. The group includes Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller, D-Calif., and House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Howard Berman, D-Calif., who both whipped for Waxman. Although Pelosi was publicly neutral in the fight, Waxman's win is also hers. Dingell, an old bull with his own power base, has clashed with Pelosi. His loss may mean fellow bulls like Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., will follow Pelosi's lead.

Waxman is set to play a leading role in crafting healthcare legislation as well as environmental and energy measures sought by the incoming Obama administration.

"We have an opportunity that only comes once in a generation," Waxman said.

He told colleagues he is better able to work with the incoming administration and with House and Senate colleagues to move the Democrats' agenda.

Like Waxman, Dingell has pushed universal health care and a cap-and-trade greenhouse gas emissions bill. But Waxman backs more aggressive cuts in emissions than Dingell, who works closely with car makers in his state. Environmental groups stayed out of the fight but rushed to congratulate Waxman Thursday.

The vote was a blow to the seniority system and to the chairmen it gave independence to. "Seniority is important, but it should not be a grant of property rights to be chairman for three decades," Waxman said.

As the second-ranking Democrat on Energy and Commerce for decades, Waxman has long been involved in health and environmental legislation. He has also used the Oversight and Government Reform Committee to investigate the Bush administration's health and environmental polices. Waxman will likely bring most of his highly-regarded staff with him to Energy and Commerce, members said.

In his bid for the chairmanship, Waxman was boosted by the expanded Democratic majority. New members, many of whom received Waxman campaign contributions, appear to have leaned toward him, as did Californians and liberals. Reps. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., Bruce Braley, D-Iowa, and Elijah Cummings, D-Md., gave speeches on Waxman's behalf, members said. Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., also whipped for Waxman. Reps. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., Mike Doyle, D-Pa., Stephanie Herseth-Sandlin, D-S.D., and John Lewis, D-Ga., spoke for Dingell.

The vote opens a vacancy atop the Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Rep. Edolphus Towns, D-N.Y., has seniority and has said he will seek the chairmanship. At the time of publication, it was unclear if Cummings, whom some members have asked to run, would challenge Towns. Cummings said Waxman's effort does not disrupt the traditional Democratic seniority system for committee assignments. Any action on the chairmanship has been postponed until members have time to consider the candidates. As for the other committees, all panel leaders won re-election to their posts.