Waxman Bests Dingell in Contest Over Influential House Committee

November 20, 2008 | Jesse Jenkins,

Representative Henry Waxman of California defeated Representative John Dingell of Michigan in the battle for the gavel of the influential House Energy and Commerce Committee today.

Over the past two weeks, the two senior Democrats waged one of the most hotly contested challenges for committee chairmanship in recent Congressional history. Waxman was announced the victor today after a 137-122 vote of the full House Democratic Caucus, ending Dingell's nearly 28 year reign as Chair of the committee, which has jurisdiction over several key issues, including energy, interstate commerce and health care.

The vote, which upended the traditional Congressional seniority system, places a committed environmentalist and ally of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi in the top position on the committee, which will be ground zero for energy, global warming, and health care debates in the 2009 House of Representatives.

Mr. Dingell, the longest serving member in the history of the House, has been one of the Detroit auto industry's strongest allies in Congress, and his ouster is further evidence of their declining influence on Capitol Hill.

While Mr. Dingell has championed numerous environmental bills in his decades of service, including the Clean Air Act, and has been a consistent advocate of universal health care, he drew the ire of Speaker Pelosi and many more progressive members of the Democratic Party for being slow to advance climate change legislation and frequently siding with Detroit in opposition to higher fuel economy standards for cars and trucks.

Mr. Waxman is widely considered the more liberal of the two, a fact Mr. Dingell used - unsuccessfully - to argue that he was the more likely to knit together the broad coalition of labor, industry and environmental interests necessary to fashion a politically successful climate change bill.

Progressives and environmentalists are largely hailing Waxman's victory as another sign of the progressive mandate sweeping Washington DC. Waxman's victory is certainly a shift in the Congressional balance of power, and will no doubt make aggressive energy reforms more likely to pass the House of Representatives. But it remains to be seen if the new chairman can craft legislation that can secure victory in the Senate, where sixteen moderate Democrats are organizing to take control of the climate debate in the 111th Congress.

In other Congressional news, Senator Joe Lieberman (I-CT) will keep his chairmanship of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, but will lose the gavel of the Senate Environment and Public Works subcommittee with jurisdiction over global warming policy. Senate leaders were under pressure to oust Lieberman, a former Democrat who caucuses with the party, for backing Republican John McCain in the 2008 Presidential Election.

Mark Begich, the current mayor of Anchorage, AK, and the Democratic challenger to Senator Ted Stevens (R-AK) was also announced victor in the tight Senate race yesterday. Begich, who trailed on November 4th, pulled ahead to secure victory as absentee ballots were counted over the past two weeks. Senator Stevens, who was convicted of felony corruption charges shortly before the election (the conviction is still under appeal), conceded yesterday, giving Democrats 58 votes in the Senate (including Independents Lieberman and Bernie Sanders of Vermont who caucus with the party).

Two Senate seats are still contested in Minnesota - where election officials are launching a manual recount of ballots in the race between comedian Al Franken and Republican incumbent Norm Coleman - and in Georgia - where incumbent Republican Saxby Chambliss failed to secure a majority of the votes, triggering a mandatory run-off with Democratic challenger Jim Martin. Senate rules require a 60 vote super majority is needed to override filibusters, and these two remaining races will determine Democrats ability to pass that threshold.