Round 1: Pelosi Bags a Dingell

The first round of a rare committee chairmanship fight in the U.S. House is over, with Henry Waxman, who is seeking to grab the powerful Energy and Commerce gavel from John Dingell, winning a vote of the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee, 25-22.

The outcome is hardly final, and Dingell will now appeal the matter to the full Democratic caucus, which will probably vote tomorrow.

Waxman’s initial victory, however, is noteworthy because the Steering and Policy Committee, which makes formal recommendations to the whole caucus on committee assignments, is packed with Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s loyalists. Pelosi has been publicly neutral in the Waxman-Dingell contest, but there are plenty of reasons to suspect she’s with Waxman – and may have even encouraged him to run. His win in what is essentially her committee will only fuel these suspicions.

Still, it’s entirely possible that the whole caucus will reverse the Steering and Policy verdict tomorrow. Chairmanship fights are rare, particularly on the Democratic side, because of the primacy of the seniority system. The last successful challenge on the Democratic side (until now, perhaps) came in 1985, when Illinois’ Mel Price, well into his 80’s and suffering from Parkinson’s Disease, was pushed aside as Armed Services chairman by party leaders and replaced by Les Aspin, who won a narrow vote of the full caucus to leapfrog a more senior member.

With the full caucus vote nearing, Dingell’s side has been aggressively portraying Waxman’s challenge as a threat to the seniority system, calculating that Democrats with multiple terms under their belts will think twice before ousting a committee chairman if it could lead to their own seniority being ignored down the road. There are indications that this strategy has worked particularly well with the Congressional Black Caucus, which includes many long-tenured House members from safe districts whose main avenue to power within the House is the seniority system.