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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.
At the time, Waxman ripped Dingell as practicing business as usual and protecting special interests, and questioned why he would back a policy that a minority of Democrats supported.
Democratic chairmen should be getting their votes from Democrats and some Republicans, Waxman said at the time, not Republicans and some Democrats.
Markey and Waxman have advanced principles for legislation, but any bill would have to move through the Energy and Commerce Committee. Environmentalists have suggested that Dingell was not moving quickly enough to take up climate change legislation.
Waxman might also find himself in an uncomfortable spot as head of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee. The committees mandate is essentially to investigate the executive branch; the committee has been a launching pad for the many of the most incendiary allegations against the White House under Presidents Clinton and Bush.
But with a new Democratic president arriving on a wave of popular support, the watchdog function that Waxman clearly relishes is likely to be strictly muzzled by House leadership at least for the foreseeable future.
By contrast, the Energy and Commerce Committee could assert jurisdiction over major portions of Obamas agenda health care, alternative energy, climate change and even restoring stability to financial systems. On many of these issues, Pelosi is more closely aligned ideologically with Waxman than with Dingell, and clearly Waxman is seen as an ally of the Speaker while Dingell is not.
Dingell might be able to argue that since so much of the presidential election was about rescuing manufacturing jobs in the Midwest, it is a poor signal to replace a chairman from Michigan with a chairman from California. Also, California is already well-represented among senior leadership: Aside from Pelosi and Waxman, California Democrats already chair the Education and Labor Committee (Rep. George Miller), the Foreign Affairs Committee (Rep. Howard Berman) and the Veterans Affairs Committee (Rep. Bob Filner).
Committee chairmanships are put to a vote of the membership, but only after recommendations have been made by the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee technically two committees chaired by Pelosi allies Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) and Miller.
Dingells backers warn that a putsch could open Democrats up to just the kind of partisan overreach that helped lead to the 1994 Republican revolution.
A House Democratic aide sympathetic to Dingell noted his history of working to get bipartisan accomplishments signed into law.
Thats something that Democrats should be concerned about. If we dont do things differently and more on a bipartisan basis, then that might be what happens, the aide said.
A Dingell defeat could send shock waves through the chamber, tossing aside seniority and putting more power in the hands of leadership if even the oldest of old bulls like Dingell can be slaughtered.
Policy-wise, the auto industry would see the weakening of its greatest patron at the moment of its greatest need, with auto sales dropping by their greatest margin since World War II and automakers looking to the federal government for help to stave off bankruptcies and massive layoffs.
Environmentalists, who have clashed with Dingell, could see his defeat as a boon, with a greater chance to shape global warming and other legislation.
The shake-up of committees also was going on in the Senate but behind the scenes. Democratic leaders have already signaled their desire to remove Sen. Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.) from atop the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, based on his aggressive attacks against President-elect Obama during the campaign and his endorsement of Republican nominee Sen. John McCain (Ariz.).
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is expected to meet with Lieberman Thursday. Democratic aides have repeatedly said that Lieberman is likely to lose his chairmanship but not be kicked out of the caucus.
Democratic leaders have also been mulling whether to replace ailing 90-year-old Senate Appropriations Chairman Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) by making him chairman emeritus. He would likely be replaced by the next-most-senior appropriator, 84-year-old Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii). If Inouye takes Appropriations, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) would likely take over as chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation panel.
Its unclear whether Inouye, who ran afoul of Democratic leaders this election cycle by making a last-ditch push for the re-election of his good friend Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), might be punished along the same lines as Lieberman for his lack of party loyalty. Stevens was convicted last week of seven felony counts of lying about gifts he received on financial disclosure forms, and Inouye put out a statement saying Stevens would likely be able to serve in the Senate while his case is appealed. Reid strongly disputed Inouyes 11th-hour assertion, saying Stevens would face expulsion from the chamber based on his conviction.
Sen. Joseph Bidens (D-Del.) election as vice president creates an opening on the Foreign Relations Committee. Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Chairman Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) is next in line but is expected to stick with the Banking panel. That would put Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) at the helm of Foreign Relations.
If history is any guide, Democrats will be able to add at least one extra seat to their majority on every committee, based on the five seats they picked up Tuesday night. If they were to win all four of the undecided Senate races, they could make an argument to increase their committee majority from two seats to three, but Republicans have the ability to filibuster any organizing resolution setting committee ratios.
One former Senate GOP leadership aide said Republicans would likely point to a two-seat advantage as the precedent if Democrats do not win any more seats, but that Democrats would probably argue for a three-seat majority regardless.
If Democrats have a majority above 56, the aide said, it will be harder [for Republicans] to fend them off from achieving a three-seat advantage on committees.
But one senior Senate Democratic aide said it was unlikely that Democrats would seek a three-seat advantage even if they win close elections in Oregon, Minnesota, Georgia and Alaska.
Either way, the aide said, Republicans will likely press to enlarge the total number of Senators permitted to sit on committees so their Members can keep their seats. If the total number of seats on each panel remained the same, many less-senior Republicans would likely be forced to give up plum assignments to make room for the enhanced Democratic majority.
Reid spokesman Jim Manley said Reid began making phone calls to existing and new Members on Tuesday to find out what committee assignments they would like.
Steven T. Dennis and Emily Pierce contributed to this report.