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WAXMAN GETS KEY ENERGY POSITION

Hook and Simon are writers in our Washington bureau.

Defeating another political titan, Rep. Henry A. Waxman, the liberal Los Angeles power broker, captured a House post Thursday that will put him at the center of efforts to advance President-elect Barack Obama’s proposals 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 help shape some of Obama’s most ambitious domestic plans.

The 137-122 vote stripped the chairmanship from Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), 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 has significant implications for Obama’s environmental agenda.

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Dingell, an automobile-industry champion who represents greater Detroit, has been criticized for slowing or blocking action on stricter vehicle emissions standards, fuel-economy improvements and other regulatory efforts. Those stances have pitted him against Waxman, 69, 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 election.

In the Senate, Ted Stevens of Alaska, the longest-serving Republican, lost his bid for reelection after being convicted of corruption charges. 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 veterans as Sens. John W. Warner (R-Va.) and Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.).

Dingell, who has been traveling the Capitol on crutches or in a wheelchair as he recovers from knee surgery, argued that he was 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 may no longer hold sway.

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

Dingell’s loss is a blow to the U.S. auto industry at a time when it says it needs additional 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 that Waxman would probably 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.”

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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.”

Bald and mustachioed, Waxman stands 5 feet 5 and is known for a soft-spoken manner. He has proved to be an aggressive investigator in his current post as chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

That panel churned out reports that cast an unforgiving eye on Bush administration programs, and it brought a wide variety of figures -- baseball players, hedge-fund managers and former spy Valerie Plame -- to testify at high-profile hearings.

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Waxman, who represents Beverly Hills and West Hollywood, was first elected to the House in 1974 as part of a post-Watergate influx of liberal Democrats. In the 1980s and 1990s, he took the lead on bills to expand Medicaid coverage for children, help AIDS patients, require warning labels on cigarettes and make generic drugs more widely available.

For years, he battled with Dingell over strengthening the Clean Air Act.

In making his pitch for the energy and commerce post, Waxman was blunt in outlining his policy differences with Dingell.

Dingell had slowed pollution controls, while Waxman wanted to accelerate them, Waxman told House Democrats, according to his prepared comments. For years, Dingell blocked efforts to increase car mileage standards that Waxman favored. Dingell opposed Waxman’s early efforts to combat global warming, the California lawmaker said.

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Waxman’s election suggests that Congress will aggressively tackle climate-change legislation next year and that California will be at the forefront of that effort. Another California Democrat, Barbara Boxer, is chairwoman of the Senate committee on the environment.

Waxman, Boxer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) have called for tough new limits on emissions from power plants, factories and other pollution sources.

One key dispute with Dingell has involved state efforts to take stronger action than the federal government against global warming. Dingell infuriated Waxman and Pelosi when he pushed for a single federal rule for vehicle emissions that would have prevented California and other states from enacting tougher standards.

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.

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It will also consider proposals to make health insurance more available. But despite their differences on environmental regulation, Dingell and Waxman are both longtime champions of universal access to healthcare.

The committee chairmanship will also give Waxman a louder voice in legislation affecting his hometown industry, entertainment. As chairman, he will have oversight of the Federal Communications Commission, which in recent years has cracked down on indecent language on broadcast television. The committee also oversees telecommunications issues related to cable TV and the Internet.

But Waxman’s new role could be a double-edged sword for Hollywood, as he has a history of conducting hard-hitting hearings on issues and controversies under his jurisdiction.

Waxman will assume the chairmanship with close ties to the White House, as his former chief of staff, Phil Schiliro, has been named Obama’s liaison to Congress.

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janet.hook@latimes.com

richard.simon@latimes.com

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Jim Puzzanghera and Noam N. Levey in our Washington bureau contributed to this report.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Key events in Henry Waxman’s career

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1968: Elected to the California state Assembly at age 29.

1974: After three terms in the Assembly, wins election to the U.S. House.

1979: In a rare exception to the seniority system, elected chairman of the commerce committee’s health and environment subcommittee over a more veteran Democrat.

1981-82: Helps prevent the Reagan administration from weakening the Clean Air Act.

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1986: Helps push through a ban on federal money for subway tunneling along Wilshire Boulevard, blocking expansion of the Red Line.

1988: Engineers passage of the first comprehensive AIDS bill.

1990: Pushes for an overhaul of the Clean Air Act that imposes stricter limits on polluters.

1994: Presides over congressional hearings in which tobacco executives deny nicotine is addictive, setting the stage for costly lawsuits against the industry.

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1997: Becomes the top Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and defends President Clinton against scandal charges.

2001: Presses unsuccessfully to make the White House release the names of executives who worked with Vice President Dick Cheney’s energy task force.

2007: Becomes chairman of the oversight committee and takes aim at the Bush administration, accusing it of blocking California’s efforts to impose new restrictions on greenhouse-gas emissions and alleging contractor abuses and corruption in Iraq. Persuades Congress to repeal the ban on using federal money to build a subway tunnel.

Nov. 20, 2008: Wins the chairmanship of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

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Source: Scott J. Wilson, Los Angeles Times


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