WASHINGTON - California Rep.
Henry A. Waxman on Thursday officially dethroned longtime Energy and
Commerce Chairman John Dingell, upending a seniority system that has
governed Democratic politics in the House for decades.
In a secret ballot vote in the Cannon Caucus Room, House Democrats
ratified an earlier decision by the Steering and Policy Committee to
replace the 82-year-old Dingell with his 69-year-old rival. The vote
was 137-122 in favor of Waxman.
The ascension of Waxman, a wily environmentalist, recasts a committee
that Dingell has chaired since 1981 with an eye toward protecting the
domestic auto industry in his native Michigan. The Energy and Commerce
Committee has principal jurisdiction over many of President-elect
Barack Obama's top legislative priorities, including energy, the
environment and health care.
"Seniority is important, but it should not be a grant of property
rights to be chairman for three decades or more," Waxman said after
emerging from the caucus meeting.
Waxman's win is a big victory for environmentalists who want a more
aggressive stance on global warming from the committee, and the vote
showed the powerful hand of Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Waxman ally, even
though she officially remained neutral in the race.
The ousting of the ultimate Old Bull - just three months before Dingell
was set to become the longest-serving chairman in the House - is also a
shot across the bow for other senior lawmakers who have enjoyed a
comfortable and unchallenged ride in their chairmen's seats.
Waxman now says Dingell will be a "chairman emeritus" and will retain his Capitol office suite.
Waxman's challenge - launched the day after the election - had quietly
divided members of the Democratic Caucus and forced wavering colleagues
to cast a gut-wrenching vote.
And the results Thursday could leave a bad taste in the mouth of
Dingell supporters, who led a vocal effort to protect the chairman
while Waxman's team led the quiet coup that led to Thursday morning's
Dingell was confident heading into the vote this morning, but his vocal
supporters were clearly overwhelmed by Waxman's behind the scenes
lobbying for the chairmanship.
"Well, this was clearly a change year and I congratulate my colleague
Henry Waxman on his success today," Dingell said in a statement. "I
will work closely with him on the issues facing the Energy and Commerce
Committee and for a smooth transition."
In the closed door meeting, Dingell said, "I ask you to consider my
accomplishments," according to the notes of someone in the room.
This plea, coming from a lawmaker who joined Congress during the
Eisenhower Administration, was not enough to swing the newly-elected
freshmen who helped propel Waxman to the chairmanship.
Waxman embraced the idea that he is part of a culture of change sweeping Washington.
"We are at a unique moment in history," he told reporters afterward.
Rep-elect Gerry Connolly of Virginia, who whipped the new members for
Waxman, said 18 of the 26 members of his freshmen class had committed
to the Californian before the vote. "It would be fair to conclude a
large majority of the freshmen class was responsive to Waxman,"
Connolly said afterward.
Dingell and his backers touted the chairman's many achievements atop
the Energy and Commerce Committee. But the most emphatic arguments were
those made in favor of the seniority system.
In his nominating speech for Dingell, Georgia Rep. John Lewis warned
the most senior Democrats that they might be next, should Waxman defeat
the long-standing chairman, according to people in the room.
Asked afterward what the vote means to the seniority system, Ways and
Means Chairman Charles B. Rangel, 78, said, "It has been buried."
"I have enjoyed the seniority system," Rangel said. "It wasn't broken."
The question now is what will become of Dingell's most vocal
supporters. Oregon Rep. Earl Blumenaur, a member of the committee,
suggested some of the subcommittee seats could flip now that Waxman is
South Dakota Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, an outspoken Dingell supporter, said she was "very disappointed by the result."
Asked how long it would take the wounds to heal, Herseth Sandlin said, "It'll depend member-by-member."
was generally respectful of Dingell in his speech before the caucus,
according to people who were in the room, but he took a few sharp jabs
at the chairman. Iowa Rep. Bruce Braley, who gave one of Waxman's
nominating speeches, went a step further, lashing out at Dingell for
standing in the way of environmental reforms. He even complained that
the speaker had to go around him to enact a renewable energy bill
during the Democrats' first year in power.
The vote was tight up until the end, according to members and aides.
There was a bloc of 30 or so uncommitted members heading into the vote
that no one wanted to cast.
Before the vote, California Rep. Mike Honda said, "It feels like the temperature of the globe is going up a bit."
"There are a lot of mixed feelings in the caucus based on that vote,"
said Florida Rep. Kendrick Meek, a Dingell supporter. "We're just going
to have to move on."
Waxman told reporters afterward that he had been considering a bid
before the election. He called Dingell after the election to tell him
he was running to replace his long-time rival. "He didn't agree with me
that we needed new leadership," Waxman said. "I told him I was running
and that the caucus would decide it."
"The caucus is responding to the call of the American people for
change," Waxman said. "That was why senator Obama won. That's why many
of the members that are here were elected in districts that had been
held by Republicans in the past."
"I argued that I can deliver that change," Waxman said.
John Bresnahan and Ryan Grim contributed to this article.