Democrats have honored the seniority system for generations rewarding their longest-serving members with gavels, then allowing them to continue amassing power by hanging on to those chairmanships indefinitely.
Several of the Democratic Old Bulls now leading committees were reared in that order, and Dingell, who became the top Democrat on the Energy and Commerce panel in 1981, is prime among them.
For these lawmakers, the return to the majority was at times a rude awakening. At key moments over the past two years in debates on auto efficiency, childrens health insurance and the first economic stimulus package earlier this year, among others Pelosi repeatedly demonstrated she has no compunction forgoing the regular order Democrats pledged to restore and seizing the initiative from her committee chairmen.
Its not the same situation today, and they get that, one senior aide said. At the same time, they do have a feeling theyve earned some power to run their committees the way they see fit.
How the seniority issue affects the Energy and Commerce contest is not yet clear. So far, it is helping rally support among members of the Congressional Black Caucus, who cite respect for length of service in explaining their support for Dingell.
Seniority is important. Its been a part of this institution for a long time. So absent cause, I see no reason to change chairmen, said Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.), a prominent CBCer.
That system has helped reward three CBCers with gavels, and two of them Ways and Means Chairman Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) and Judiciary Chairman John Conyers (D-Mich.) have endorsed Dingell.
But Waxmans camp continues to wage a quiet campaign, making it difficult to determine momentum, even at this late stage. Nevertheless, the challenger appears to have locked up the support of one key group: incoming freshmen.
An informal survey of about two dozen incoming Democrats resulted in 18 saying they support Waxman and just three saying they support Dingell, said one freshman lawmaker who requested not to be identified.
The lawmaker is not surprised by these results since freshman Democrats were largely elected after campaigning for change.
Waxman has also been more aggressive in reaching out to new Members, the lawmaker said. Dingell is now trying to spend more time with freshmen.
Democratic leadership elections went as expected, with Rep. John Larson (Conn.) moving up to Caucus chairman and Rep. Xavier Becerra (Calif.) winning the race for vice chairman over Rep. Marcy Kaptur (Ohio). Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (Md.), Majority Whip James Clyburn (S.C.) and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) were unopposed, with Van Hollen adding the title of special assistant to the Speaker.
Steven T. Dennis and Jen Bendery contributed to this report.