On Thursday, Democrats in the House of Representatives will cast a key vote deciding whom they want to lead the Energy and Commerce Committee. The face-off is a battle between two legislative titans in Congress: current Chairman John Dingell, from Michigan, and California Rep. Henry Waxman.
Eighty-two year-old Dingell is a legendary, and many would say feared, figure on Capitol Hill. His Detroit-area district first elected him in 1955, before many current members of Congress were born. He helped create Medicare in the 1960s and is known for his staunch defense of the auto industry, fighting against tougher clean air standards and higher mileage requirements for cars. Recently, Dingell has focused on climate change.
"There's the fact that greenhouse gases are produced by almost every single human activity," Dingell told NPR last year. "And so what we're trying to do is to come forward with legislation, as speedily as we can, which will see to it that the concerns and the needs of every part of this country are dealt with."
The Energy and Commerce Committee will have a major role in shaping health care, energy and climate change legislation — three of President-elect Obama's top priorities.
But 69-year-old Waxman, who has represented part of Los Angeles since the Watergate era in 1974, is hoping to wrest the chairmanship from Dingell. His California colleague, Democrat George Miller, says Waxman is a leader on issues such as health care, energy, and food and drug legislation.
"All [Waxman's accomplishments] have led to a better life for the American people, and I think he's the best opportunity to take us to the future in energy, where this country has got some very serious decisions," Miller says.
Waxman has been a legislative activist who has fought to regulate secondhand smoke, as well as expand the Clean Air Act and Medicaid coverage. He's also been an aggressive opponent of the Bush administration and has conducted hearings into Iraq war contractors, lead content in toys and, last month, the financial meltdown.
"Over and over again, ideology trumped governance," Waxman said of the Bush administration's financial policies. "Our regulators became enablers rather than enforcers. Their trust in the wisdom of the markets was infinite."
Waxman surprised many in Congress when, shortly after Election Day, he announced his challenge of Dingell. Committee chairmanships are usually determined by seniority.
But not always. Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public policy at Princeton University, says this is not merely a turf war.
"This, first, is a battle over the role of the environment in the Democratic agenda," Zelizer says.
"There's a lot of Democrats who want the party to finally move forward on this issue, and Dingell has been one of the chief opponents of environmental measures in the Democratic Party."
Dingell and Waxman have each been wooing party members, contributing money to their campaigns and making their respective cases in private and public. Leading the charge for Dingell is Pennsylvania Democrat Mike Doyle, who says Dingell's name is on every major piece of environmental legislation, and that he has a climate change bill at the ready.
"We'd be taking a step backwards changing leadership right now," Doyle says. "We're ready to move. We have prepared this climate change legislation so that when we got a new president, we could go full steam ahead."
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) has remained publicly neutral, but her coolness toward Dingell is well-known. Wednesday, in what may be a harbinger, the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee endorsed Waxman in a secret vote. But it will be the entire Democratic caucus that determines who leads Energy and Commerce in another secret vote — Thursday.