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The camps of both contenders saw reason to be encouraged from the results of the Steering Committee vote, which Waxman won 25-22. Waxman backers noted that the Californian beat an incumbent to secure the nomination no small feat in a Democratic Caucus that has traditionally held the seniority system as sacred.
That indicates a lot of weakness of support for Dingell, one aide to a Waxman supporter said.
But Dingell backers said they never expected to keep the margin so close in a committee stocked with allies of Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who have largely fallen in behind Waxman. In fact, they argued, they could have won the vote or at least held it to a single-vote margin if the full panel had been voting. Dingell lost out on votes from Ways and Means Chairman Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) and Financial Services Chairman Barney Frank (D-Mass.), both of whom have endorsed him. A third Dingell supporter on the Steering Committee, Rep. John Tanner (D-Tenn.), was in Valencia, Spain, attending a meeting of the NATO parliamentary assembly.
Recent history suggests the Steering Committees nomination does not guarantee success. The last time Democrats faced a high-profile struggle for a top committee slot, in 1996, then-Banking and Financial Services ranking member Henry Gonzalez (D-Texas) failed to win the endorsement of the Steering Committee. But when the fight went to the full Caucus, Gonzalez, then 80 years old, managed to beat back challenges from Reps. John LaFalce (N.Y.) and Bruce Vento (Minn.), the panels second- and third-ranking Democrats.
In the runup to that contest, Gonzalez, a 35-year House veteran, faced criticism that he had effectively checked out of the job. Thats a charge that Dingell who, while 82 and in a wheelchair as he recovers from knee surgery, remains mentally sharp by all accounts has not seen from Waxmans camp.
But Gonzalez also pledged to step down from his post after two years a condition of a deal that Hoyer unsuccessfully tried to broker between Dingell and Waxman to defuse the current battle.