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Less than a day after firming their grip on the House, Democrats geared up for an internal battle royal as Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Henry Waxman (Calif.) launched a bid to wrest the gavel of the Energy and Commerce Committee from Rep. John Dingell (Mich.).
The contest promises to reopen ideological rifts in the party over climate change and other issues just as the committee prepares to tackle an ambitious agenda in concert with President-elect Obama. It carried shades of two years ago when House Democratic elation at recapturing the majority was immediately doused by the bruising fight between Reps. Steny Hoyer (Md.) and John Murtha (Pa.) over the Majority Leader slot.
Dingell was blindsided by Waxmans maneuver, and he fought back furiously.
Dingell has proven that he is the best person for this job, his spokeswoman Jodi Seth said. This is unhealthy, and does not benefit the party in any way.
Tearing a leadership apart is something the Republicans should be doing after their big loss, it shouldnt be the first order of business for the Democrats after a historic election.
She added, Dingell has a strong record of accomplishment for the first two years back in the majority and is positioned to move full speed ahead with an aggressive agenda on climate change, health care reform and food and drug safety in the 111th Congress.
Supporters on both sides have already leapt to the parapets, working the phones to figure out where their colleagues will line up.
The question of the day for Dingell supporters appears to be who knew about Waxmans move before Dingell did and whether Waxman has tacit support from any Democratic leaders. Leadership stayed mum on the fight, with spokesmen for Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Hoyer and Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) all declining to comment. Sources said Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), the ranking member on the Oversight Committee who is retiring from Congress, knew about Waxmans decision before it made the press Wednesday morning.
Waxman issued a statement late Wednesday that did not mention Dingell.
We will need the very best leadership in Congress and our committees to succeed. That is why after long thought I have decided to seek the chairmanship of the Committee on Energy and Commerce. Enacting comprehensive energy, climate, and health care reform will not be easy. But my record shows that I have the skill and ability to build consensus and deliver legislation that improves the lives of all Americans, he said.
Waxmans move highlights longstanding fault lines among senior House Democrats.
Dingell and Pelosis relationship has been strained since 2002, when she endorsed Democrat Lynn Rivers in a bitter primary challenge to Dingell. At the start of the 110th Congress, Pelosi outraged Dingell by creating a special select committee chaired by Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) to advocate for action on climate change legislation. That year, Pelosi, backed by Waxman, clashed with Dingell over the regulation of vehicle emissions, with Dingell seeking to protect the auto industry from new layers of regulation at the state level, and conflicts are certain next year when a major global warming bill is expected to move through Dingells committee.