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A power struggle in the House

Hook is a Times staff writer.

Opening a split among congressional Democrats that could affect President-elect Barack Obama’s efforts to curb global warming, a California environmentalist is trying to wrest control of a crucial House committee from its chairman, who is the automobile industry’s strongest ally in fighting stricter antipollution standards.

Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Beverly Hills) has announced that he wants to replace Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.) as chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which will take the lead on Obama’s signature issues of energy, global warming and healthcare.

Over the years, Dingell has given invaluable support to the auto companies’ fights against pollution and fuel economy standards that they considered unrealistic, and Waxman’s challenge to his leadership is the culmination of a decades-long rivalry between the two powerful lawmakers, the panel’s top two Democrats.

The outcome of the fight could affect whether action on Obama’s energy agenda will be tilted toward the interests of Rust Belt industrial Democrats or more aggressive antipollution efforts that California has spearheaded.

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It opens divisions among triumphant Democrats just as they come off a landmark election that put Obama in the White House and expanded the party’s majorities in the House and Senate -- and it is a window into how power struggles among Democrats may intensify now that there is so much more power to wield.

Dingell allies say Waxman’s unexpected move is divisive and will sow dissent just as the party should be rallying together.

“There is no basis for removing Chairman Dingell,” Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.) said in a conference call with Dingell supporters. “The implication that Mr. Dingell wouldn’t move environmental legislation as quickly as Mr. Waxman has no basis in reality.”

In a letter Thursday to all House Democrats, Dingell said he was better prepared to move the Obama agenda and insisted that he was committed to addressing the climate change problem.

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“An Obama presidency will allow us to quickly complete our work and protect the environment,” he wrote.

The Obama transition team has not weighed in on the dispute, but the person managing congressional relations for the team is Phil Schiliro, a former longtime Waxman aide. Global warming is a thorny issue for Obama because there are high expectations for him to address the problem. At the same time, Obama carried Michigan and must be concerned about the survival of the U.S. auto industry.

Dingell, who in the Democratic primaries endorsed the presidential candidacy of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, represents a district near Detroit, and the loss of his position would be seen as a blow to the auto industry at a particularly trying time. Detroit is being battered by declining car sales, high gas prices and an economy in turmoil. In a sign of the political sensitivity of the fight, several auto industry spokesmen declined to comment on the choice between Dingell and Waxman.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) is officially neutral in the dispute, but she is known to be sympathetic to Waxman’s positions on the environment and has repeatedly crossed swords with Dingell over the years:

In 2002, Pelosi endorsed an unsuccessful primary challenger to Dingell.

In 2007, she set up a special panel to address global warming, a move that was seen as a way to circumvent Dingell.

Last year, she and Waxman fought against a Dingell global warming bill that would have prohibited California and other states from taking tougher action than the federal government to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Dingell supported that provision because, he said, it was easier for auto companies to comply with a uniform national standard than a patchwork of state laws, and Waxman and Pelosi saw it as a direct shot at California’s landmark law to cut tailpipe emissions. The provision was dropped from a global warming draft bill Dingell circulated this fall.

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Waxman’s feud with Dingell is even longer-running. Throughout the 1980s, as they rose in seniority on the energy and commerce committee, the two battled over clean-air laws, toxic waste regulation and other environmental issues.

As chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Waxman has been a thorn in the Bush administration’s side with frequent hearings and reports critical of its performance. But now that a Democrat will be in the White House, that oversight role may not be as appealing to Waxman as the chairman of the energy and commerce committee, which has jurisdiction over many issues important to the new administration.

“In large measure, our success as a Democratic caucus will depend on how the commerce committee performs,” Waxman said in a letter to Democrats announcing his plans.

Environmentalists are delighted at the prospect of a Waxman chairmanship.

“It is much more likely we will advance a progressive, forward-looking agenda with a progressive, forward-thinking leader like Waxman than with an old bull who defends Detroit like Dingell,” said Dan Becker, director of the Safe Climate Campaign, an environmental advocacy group.

Committee chairs are approved before the new Congress convenes in January by a vote of the Democratic caucus after recommendations are made by a leadership panel.

If it were an ideological vote, Waxman would probably win. But seniority is a powerful enough force in the House that committee chairs are rarely deposed, and lawmakers do not tend to cast their votes on ideological grounds.

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janet.hook@latimes.com


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