WASHINGTON – Opening a split among congressional Democrats that could affect President-elect Barack Obama’s efforts to curb global warming, a California environmentalist is trying to wrest control of a crucial House committee from its current chairman, who is the automobile industry’s strongest ally in fighting stricter antipollution standards.
Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., has announced that he wants to replace Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., as chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which will take the lead on Obama’s signature issues of energy, global warming and health care.
Dingell has given invaluable support to auto companies’ fights against pollution and fuel economy standards that they considered unrealistic, and Waxman’s challenge to his leadership is the culmination of a decades-long rivalry between the panel’s top two Democrats.
The outcome of the fight could affect whether action on Obama’s energy agenda will be tilted toward the interests of industrial Democrats or more aggressive antipollution efforts that California has spearheaded.
Dingell allies say Waxman’s unexpected move will sow dissent just as the party should be rallying together. “There is no basis for removing Chairman Dingell,” said Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Pa., in a conference call with Dingell supporters. “The implication that Mr. Dingell wouldn’t move environmental legislation as quickly as Mr. Waxman has no basis in reality.”
In a letter Thursday to all House Democrats, Dingell said he was better prepared to move the Obama agenda and insisted that he was committed to addressing climate change. “An Obama presidency will allow us to quickly complete our work and protect the environment,” he wrote.
The Obama transition team has not weighed in on the dispute, but the transition person who is managing congressional relations is Phil Shilero, a former Waxman aide. Global warming is an important issue for Obama because there are high expectations for him to address the problem. At the same time, Obama carried Michigan and must be concerned about the survival of the U.S. auto industry.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is officially neutral but is known to be sympathetic to Waxman’s positions on the environment and has crossed swords repeatedly with Dingell.