WASHINGTON — Defeating another political titan, Rep. Henry A. Waxman, the liberal Los Angeles power broker, captured a House post Thursday that will put him at the center of efforts to advance President-elect Barack Obama's proposals to curb global warming, develop alternative fuels and expand health insurance coverage.
Waxman's victory, in a secret ballot of his House Democratic colleagues, gives him the chairmanship of the influential energy and commerce committee, which will help shape some of Obama's most ambitious domestic plans.
The 137-122 vote stripped the chairmanship from Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), the longest-serving member in the House, and marked an unusual departure from the seniority system that usually dictates how the chamber operates.
The changing of the guard has significant implications for Obama's environmental agenda.
Dingell, an automobile-industry champion who represents greater Detroit, has been criticized for slowing or blocking action on stricter vehicle emissions standards, fuel-economy improvements and other regulatory efforts. Those stances have pitted him against Waxman, 69, for decades, and environmentalists feared that Dingell would be a drag on Obama's efforts to curb air pollution.
Dingell, 82, was elected to the House in 1955 -- six years before Obama was born. He now becomes part of the wave of congressional "Old Bulls" who have retired or been toppled by the tides of change that carried Obama and other Democrats to victory in this month's election.
In the Senate, Ted Stevens of Alaska, the longest-serving Republican, lost his bid for reelection after being convicted of corruption charges. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, the longest-serving Democrat, was eased out of his post as chairman of the appropriations committee. Retirees include such veterans as Sens. John W. Warner (R-Va.) and Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.).
Dingell, who has been traveling the Capitol on crutches or in a wheelchair as he recovers from knee surgery, argued that he was an effective legislator and that the House would suffer from upsetting the seniority system. His defeat is a sign that, for the incoming generation of politicians, such arguments may no longer hold sway.
"Well, this was clearly a change year," Dingell said after his defeat.
Dingell's loss is a blow to the U.S. auto industry at a time when it says it needs additional federal help to avoid collapse. Some business interests worry that Waxman will steer the committee sharply to the left.
"Whether you agree with him or not, Chairman Dingell has long been respected as an insightful, reasonable and pragmatic legislator," said Thomas Pyle, president of the Institute for Energy Research, a pro-business research group. "These are not qualities for which Mr. Waxman is known."
Pyle said that Waxman would probably bring "sweeping changes" to the committee's focus, "which isn't good news if you're in the business of American energy or other kinds of free-market commerce."
By contrast, environmentalists hailed Waxman's promotion.
"It's a whole new day for the environment," said Dan Becker, director of the Safe Climate Campaign, an environmental advocacy group. "The committee through which all major environmental legislation has to pass has gone from someone hostile to environmental protection to a real champion."
Bald and mustachioed, Waxman stands 5 feet 5 and is known for a soft-spoken manner. He has proved to be an aggressive investigator in his current post as chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
That panel churned out reports that cast an unforgiving eye on Bush administration programs, and it brought a wide variety of figures -- baseball players, hedge-fund managers and former spy Valerie Plame -- to testify at high-profile hearings.
Waxman, who represents Beverly Hills and West Hollywood, was first elected to the House in 1974 as part of a post-Watergate influx of liberal Democrats. In the 1980s and 1990s, he took the lead on bills to expand Medicaid coverage for children, help AIDS patients, require warning labels on cigarettes and make generic drugs more widely available.
For years, he battled with Dingell over strengthening the Clean Air Act.
In making his pitch for the energy and commerce post, Waxman was blunt in outlining his policy differences with Dingell.
Dingell had slowed pollution controls, while Waxman wanted to accelerate them, Waxman told House Democrats, according to his prepared comments. For years, Dingell blocked efforts to increase car mileage standards that Waxman favored. Dingell opposed Waxman's early efforts to combat global warming, the California lawmaker said.
Waxman's election suggests that Congress will aggressively tackle climate-change legislation next year and that California will be at the forefront of that effort. Another California Democrat, Barbara Boxer, is chairwoman of the Senate committee on the environment.