WASHINGTON U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman, a California liberal, won the chairmanship of a key congressional energy committee on Thursday and promised to work closely with President-elect Barack Obama to promote alternative energy, ease global warming and expand healthcare.
Waxman wrested control of the U.S. House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee from Rep. John Dingell of Michigan, a longtime friend of the now-ailing U.S. auto industry.
The action was taken on a vote of 137-122 at a closed-door meeting of House Democrats. Waxman will take the gavel when the 111th Congress convenes on January 6, two weeks before Obama is sworn in as the 44th president.
"American people are hurting all around this country," a victorious Waxman told reporters on Capitol Hill. "They are demanding action. And we must live up to their expectations."
Waxman, known as a skilled legislator, said the new committee leadership would help "to get important issues passed in healthcare, environmental protection, in energy policy."
Many of Obama's plans will be funneled through the Energy and Commerce Committee, whose vast jurisdiction includes consumer protection, regulation of energy resources, global warming, conservation, health and auto emissions.
Waxman favors stronger fuel economy standards for U.S. cars and trucks. But with the three major U.S.-based automakers facing severe financial problems, it may be difficult to boost gasoline mileage requirements that federal law says must climb by 40 percent to 35 miles per gallon by 2020. That is still lower than what is required for vehicles in Europe and Asia.
Environmental groups welcomed Waxman as the new chairman of the powerful committee
"Waxman will help Obama move forward with his agenda," said Frank O'Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch.
Waxman's immediate priorities will likely be passing legislation to promote alternative energy that would help create the millions of "green" jobs that Obama has called for.
He is also expected to seek to clear a bill that would cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and prepare America to be part of an international agreement to fight global warming.
"Waxman undoubtedly would press more aggressively for effective legislation to limit greenhouse gas emissions," said O'Donnell. "Dingell is the favorite of the K Street lobbyists because they realize he will move more slowly, and not require their companies to do as much on global warming."
Fossil-fueled vehicles, like those made in Dingell's district, which includes Detroit, are key sources of greenhouse gas carbon dioxide that contributes to global warming.
Dingell, the longest-serving member of the House, fought for decades for breaks for the Big Three automakers, which are now seeking emergency financial aid from Congress.
Dingell eventually joined the drive to force the industry to build more efficient cars, and last year helped win passage of legislation to increase fuel economy standards, but not as much as Waxman and others wanted.
Ethan Siegal of the Washington Exchange, which tracks Congress for institutional investors, said Waxman's harder edge had long been noted.
"We see Dingell as a more pragmatic, deal-making liberal with whom the business community can negotiate; and we see Waxman as more of a classic take-no-prisoners liberal who tends to go for the jugular."
Greenpeace praised Waxman's global warming plan to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions 25 percent by 2020 and for the long term by 80 percent by 2050.
Waxman previously sought to block the Environmental Protection Agency from issuing permits for new coal-fired power plants unless those facilities installed the best technology to cut greenhouse gas emissions.
Waxman is a big supporter of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power and is a major critic of Big Oil. He has also investigated the cozy relationship some oil companies have had with Interior Department employees responsible for overseeing drilling on federal lands.
(Additional reporting by Ayesha Rascoe; Editing by David Wiessler and Peter Cooney)