WASHINGTON – A fight within the Democratic Party over control of the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee in the House of Representatives could influence the outcome of President-elect Barack Obama's efforts to cap the heat-trapping gases blamed for global warming.
Obama has said he wants to act quickly on climate change, but crucial bipartisan support could be tested if liberal California Rep. Henry Waxman succeeds at unseating Chairman John Dingell of Michigan, the panel's top Democrat for 28 years and a major ally of automakers and electric utilities.
The winner will be at the helm of a panel that will spearhead a bill to cap greenhouse gases and establish a multibillion-dollar market in carbon dioxide, with companies buying and selling rights to pollute.
Last month Dingell and Rep. Rick Boucher, also a Democrat, offered a draft global warming bill based on dozens of hearings and white papers for reducing greenhouse gases by 80 percent by 2050, a reduction in line with what Obama has proposed.
Environmentalists and some liberal Democrats, however, see Dingell as an obstacle to stricter fuel economy standards for cars and trucks and cleaner fuels also advocated by Obama.
They see in Waxman, whose district includes swank and liberal Beverly Hills in Los Angeles, an opportunity to push through a more ambitious environmental agenda now that Democrats have expanded their majorities in Congress and will take over the White House.
"We have lost a tremendous amount of time. Rep. Dingell has always opposed bringing the energy and transportation sectors into a more efficient and modern era," said a senior Democratic aide for a member who supports Waxman's coup. The aide spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of challenging Dingell, at 82 the longest serving member in the House and one of its biggest power brokers for a quarter-century.
But Dingell's supporters say his global warming draft legislation has a better chance of winning support from some Republicans and conservative Democrats, many of them on his 57-member committee, because it slowly reduces emissions to buy time for necessary technology to develop.
Liberals and environmentalists complain that Dingell's bill could pre-empt states such as California, which have set up their own carbon trading systems, and forbid the Environmental Protection Agency and state agencies from setting fuel economy standards different from those adopted by the U.S. Transportation Department.
"The prospects for success will be much better under Chairman Dingell on this issue and many others," said Boucher, who chairs the energy panel's air quality subcommittee.
Democratic Rep. Mike Doyle, who was working the phones to drum up support for Dingell, said claims by Waxman supporters that Dingell would not move climate legislation quickly were "not based in reality."
"This climate change bill is not a slam-dunk," said Doyle. "It is not like we have overwhelming votes in the House and Senate."
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer have thus far avoided taking sides. Obama's camp also is staying out of it.
It would not be the first time Dingell has sparred with Pelosi, or Waxman, a close ally of the speaker.
In 2002, Pelosi supported Dingell's opponent in the Michigan primary. And last year, in a move that was viewed as undercutting Dingell's committee jurisdiction on the global warming issue, she created a special ad hoc committee chaired by liberal Massachusetts Rep. Edward Markey to make the case for bigger reductions in greenhouse gases.
Waxman signed on to legislation this year with Markey that would ban any new coal-fired power plants built without technology to capture carbon dioxide. Dingell favors a more tempered approach, and has signaled his support for a bill advanced by Boucher that would establish a $1 billion annual fund generated by fees on electricity generation to develop carbon capture technology.
Neither Dingell nor Waxman would comment directly about the tussle. Each side claimed to have enough votes within the Democratic caucus to win the committee chairmanship.
In a letter to members of the Committee, Dingell, without referring to Waxman, cited Pelosi: "The country must be governed from the middle."
Waxman, 69, has chaired the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that has spent the past two years taking the Bush administration to task over global warming and muzzling government scientists while also investigating the White House's political operation, steroids in sports and, most recently, abuses behind the financial collapse.
He authored a global warming bill last year that claimed 155 co-sponsors, all Democrats, well below the 218 needed to pass the House.