Waxman to vie for energy panel leadership

California Democrat is currently chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., is challenging Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., for the chairmanship of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee.

"I began making calls this morning to members and I informed Chairman Dingell that I am running for chairman," Waxman told National Journal on Wednesday. Waxman has long been the second-ranking Democrat on the Energy and Commerce panel, and is currently chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

His bid to topple Dingell, the longest-serving member of the House, marks an unexpected battle between senior Democrats for a powerful post overseeing major pieces of expected legislation on health care, global warming and renewable energy. Dingell chaired the Energy and Commerce Committee from 1980-1994, and regained the chairmanship when the Democrats took back a majority of the House two years ago.

Aides and lobbyists said Waxman appears to face an uphill fight against the powerful Dingell but would be unlikely to act without at least tacit approval from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., a fellow Californian with whom Waxman is close. Waxman said Pelosi is aware of his bid but declined say to whether she supports it. "I think I have a good chance of winning," Waxman said.

The panel's chairmanship must be voted on by House Democratic Steering Committee and then by the full Democratic Caucus, and is influenced by leadership. Success for Waxman will likely depend on support from the large California delegation and liberals who feel Dingell's support of the automobile industry and concern about automobile emissions limits would prevent strong environmental legislation; Dingell and Waxman were frequently at odds during the nearly decade-long debate that led to the Clean Air Act of 1990. "We have a narrow window to act ... and for the committee to play the essential role of leadership on health and energy issues," Waxman said.

Aides said Dingell will likely win support from Midwestern Democrats, members close to organized labor, the Congressional Black Caucus -- whose members generally strongly support seniority -- and the Blue Dog Coalition. Dingell is close to Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md. A congressional aide said that the 82-year-old Dingell "is not going to take this sitting down, and will stress his record of passing 90 bills in the last two years many with unanimous support. Dingell is guy who has proven time and time again, he is a guy who has passed bills." Dingell has "also done huge fundraising for the DCCC," the staffer said.

If Waxman wins the post, Rep. Edolphus Towns, D-N.Y. -- a member of the Congressional Black Caucus -- would become the senior member of the Oversight and Government Reform panel, but one staffer said Towns is backing Dingell. Reps. Paul Kanjorski, D-Pa. and Carolyn Maloney, D.N.Y., follow Towns in seniority. But an Energy and Commerce spokeswoman condemned Waxman's bid as "unhealthy" and said it "does not benefit the party in any way." She added, "Tearing the leadership apart is something the losing party normally does, not something the Democrats should be doing after a historic election."

Christian Bourge contributed to this story.