Muckraker: Grist on Politics

Fighting words are being exchanged in the brewing battle over the chairmanship of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

In an interview on Detroit’s WJR Radio last week, current Chair John Dingell (D-Mich.) called challenger Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) an “anti-manufacturing left-wing Democrat” who has a “serious lack of understanding of people in the auto industry and manufacturing generally.”

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John Dingell interviewed by Frank Beckmann of Detroit-based 760 WJR AM

Undeterred, Waxman says, “I think I have a good chance of winning.” A former Democratic member-cum-lobbyist agrees, telling CongressDaily ($ub req’d), “Henry has the votes.” Waxman hasn’t revealed the names of all of his supporters, aka his “whip team,” but Reps. Howard Berman (Calif.), Jim Cooper (Tenn.), and George Miller (Calif.) have voiced their support.

Dingell’s allies also claim to have the votes. Roll Call has a list of the 26 legislators signed on to his whip team, which is being chaired by Chet Edwards (Texas), Mike Doyle (Penn.), and Bart Stupak (Mich.). The group includes a number of moderate “Blue Dog” Democrats.

In an email sent to lobbyists last week, Dingell’s chief of staff wrote, “The Dingell whip team was assembled and actively making calls … The team continues to grow and today we reached out to every member of the Democratic Caucus. We are getting tremendous support so far. Members understand we need a strong, effective legislator who has the proven ability to address the complex issues facing our nation such as healthcare and energy policy.”

Aides to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif) say she is monitoring the situation but is not yet prepared to get involved, according to The Hill. But it’s notable that Miller is a close ally of Pelosi. Also worth noting is that Phil Schiliro, a longtime aide to Waxman, is the director of congressional relations for Barack Obama’s transition team, which might give him an upper hand with the new administration.

The Democratic leaders in the House could promise Waxman the job in 2011 if he backs off now. It’s possible that the 82-year-old Dingell, who has served in Congress since 1955, will retire at the end of the 111th Congress.

But if Waxman goes forward with the challenge, it will all come down to who can round up the most votes. The chairmanship is first voted on by the House Democratic Steering Committee, and then it goes before the full Democratic caucus. Dingell has strong support from more moderate Dems, while Waxman has support from more liberal-leaning members of the caucus. The “statement of principles” on climate policy that Waxman authored with Reps. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Jay Inslee (D-Wash.) has 152 signatures, which is likely an indication of his support on the climate issue at least.

Industry leaders are coming out in support of Dingell and against Waxman. “Dingell really has a very good understanding of the industry,” David Cole, chair of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich., told Bloomberg. Cole said a Waxman chairmanship would be “very unfortunate.”

Luke Popovich, a spokesperson for the National Mining Association, tells Bloomberg that Waxman would be “a very slow learner on the importance of coal for affordable energy … It would have been problematic in the best of times to have Mr. Waxman’s views prevail.”

Speaking of industry, Brad Johnson at Wonk Room took a look at how much money Dingell, Waxman, and their respective supporters have received from the oil and coal industries. Dingell has brought in nearly 10 times as much as his challenger, and a number of Dingell’s supporters have been well-subsidized by the industries too.