WASHINGTON — In a move that marks a sea change in the nation's environmental politics, California Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman on Thursday dethroned a champion of the auto industry from a top job in the House of Representatives.
Rebuking their most senior member, House Democrats voted 137-122 to oust Michigan Rep. John Dingell, 82, as the head of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which will oversee climate change issues in the new Congress.
It means that two Californians will take leading roles in the debate. Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer is the head of the Senate's Environment and Public Works Committee, which has jurisdiction over the issue.
Boxer, who wants to force industries to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases, called the vote "momentous" and predicted that Waxman, who has close ties to environmentalists and to Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco, "will be a great chairman."
Never miss a local story.
"For me, as a Californian . . . I could not, frankly, have a better partner," said Boxer, calling the 69-year-old Waxman "a very, very, very strong" ally. With Barack Obama headed for the White House, she said, Washington will have all of the players in place to move aggressively on reducing global warming: "It's going to be a great year."
Dingell's backers were fuming that Democrats would throw out a veteran committee chairman simply because they disagreed with his political philosophy, calling it a blow to their long-established seniority system. Dingell, however, the top Democrat on the committee for nearly 28 years, congratulated Waxman and promised to work with him "for a smooth transition."
"Well, this was clearly a change year," said Dingell, who came to Congress in 1955 to take his late father's place.
Dingell, who's resisted higher fuel standards and tighter limits on greenhouse gases, had called Waxman an "anti-manufacturing left-wing Democrat" and said it would be a mistake to have him in charge of the committee, particularly with the auto industry struggling.
Democrats said the showdown between Waxman and Dingell — which took place behind closed doors — was one of the most intense they'd witnessed.
"It was sort of like Zeus and Thor, these two powerful people throwing lightning around the room," said California Democratic Rep. George Miller, an ardent environmentalist who'd backed Waxman and urged his colleagues to do so. "You're asking people how they're going to vote and most people say, 'I just want to get out of the way. I don't want to get hit by this stuff.' It took a while to settle down."
Miller said that one of the main reasons Dingell lost was that he and President George W. Bush led the effort "to get rid of California's clean-air standards."
North Carolina Democratic Rep. Melvin Watt, who voted for Dingell, said that House Democrats were opening the door to appointing other top positions based on issues such as friendship, political donations and ideology. He said that could lead to "substantial problems going forward" for the majority party.
"I just thought it was a mistake, without having concrete and compelling reasons, to start disregarding the seniority system," Watt said. "We need a more concrete standard than popularity. . . . The best person is in the eye of the beholder, and the most senior person is not."
David Schultz, who teaches political science and election law at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn., said that Dingell's ouster and Obama's election made the current leadership in Washington the most pro-environment since the early 1970s. That's when Congress teamed up with President Richard Nixon to create the Environmental Protection Agency, pass the Clean Water Act and create air quality, auto emission and anti-pollution standards.
"We're looking at a new Congress that, in spite of where the economy is, the environment is going to be front and center," Schultz said.
The vote came only hours before Congress dealt another blow to Michigan, the epicenter of the nation's auto industry. Not only did the industry lose one of its top allies in Dingell, but legislative leaders also announced that an effort to bail out the industry financially had stalled, forcing them back to the drawing board.
House Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio said the vote by Democrats "sends a troubling signal from a majority that has promised to govern from the center." He called Dingell a "skilled and principled" chairman.
"They moved away from Chairman Dingell because he is committed to approaching energy and environmental issues in a manner that protects American jobs," Boehner said. "It is a disturbing sign that the leaders of the next Congress will be making decisions based not on what is best for the country, but for well-funded special interests whose priorities are far different from those of the vast majority of Americans."
Boxer said she'd introduce two environmental bills when the new Congress convened in January. The first would create a $15 billion-a-year grant program to reduce global warming emissions, an attempt to spur innovations in clean energy, including biofuels. The second would order the EPA to set up a so-called "cap and trade system" for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions.
(Barbara Barrett contributed to this article.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY