Image: Henry Waxman
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Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., joins three other senior California lawmakers now in key positions to push climate legislation.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 11/21/2008 6:16:24 PM ET 2008-11-21T23:16:24

Democrats this week got all their climate ducks lined up in a row: Four crusaders from California ready to join forces in Congress with President-elect Barack Obama to pass mandatory curbs on greenhouse gas emissions.

Three of the four — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and Sens. Barbara Boxer and Diane Feinstein — had been poised to act and now have a strong House committee chair behind the cause: Rep. Henry Waxman, who on Thursday wrested the Energy and Commerce Committee away from Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich.

In a close vote among Democratic lawmakers, Waxman's climate banner proved more popular than Dingell's seniority. Dingell's reputation for putting Detroit's auto interests above all else also didn't help his campaign to keep his job.

"Waxman's victory is a breath of fresh air — of clean air. It was a stunning defeat for the corporate lobbyists on K Street," said Frank O'Donnell, head of the activist group Clean Air Watch. "It shows that a majority of the House Democrats are ready to work with the incoming Obama administration on effective global warming legislation."

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.

'Green' jobs on to-do list
Waxman’s immediate priorities will likely be passing legislation to promote low or zero-carbon energy that would help create the millions of "green" jobs that Obama has called for.

Now that Waxman chairs the energy committee, Democrats in the House and Senate are also expected to quickly push legislation to cap greenhouse gases and establish a multibillion-dollar market aimed at gradually reducing emissions. Companies — from automakers to utilities operating coal-fired power plants —would buy and sell the right to pollute. As emission credits get more expensive, the model goes, companies will be less inclined to emit.

Still, the market would be tantamount to a huge tax on carbon emissions and will face resistance from coal state Democrats and moderate party members — to say nothing of Republicans and industry.

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," Siegal said. "And we see Waxman as more of a classic take-no-prisoners liberal who tends to go for the jugular."

Myron Ebell, head of energy policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, said Waxman's cap-and-trade strategy "would send us back to the Stone Age."

"This should provide a loud wake-up call to American business leaders that the 111th Congress is not going to play nicely with them on energy rationing policies," Ebell added.

California and climate
But Waxman also has allies with some weight. From California, there's Pelosi, Boxer, Feinstein and the most famous political Californian of them all: Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican who's embraced the climate cause and wants tighter emissions rules than what the Bush administration was willing to go for.

In the Senate, both Feinstein and Boxer have lobbied for cap-and-trade legislation. Boxer, chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, was quick to seize on the momentum Thursday, announcing plans to introduce legislation to promote green jobs and cap greenhouse gases when Congress restarts in January.

"When we address the threat of unchecked global warming by investing in clean energy technologies and reducing our dependence on foreign oil, we also have a recipe for economic recovery," she told reporters. "The time to start is now, and my colleagues and I are here to step up to President-elect Obama's call to action to address global warming and create millions of green jobs in America."

The shift from the Michigan mindset to the California crusade started last year, when Pelosi undercut Dingell's power by creating a special climate panel led by Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., to make the case for bigger reductions in greenhouse gases.

Dingell, for his part, last month took his own shot at the crusaders, introducing a bill that would prevent states, including California, from setting tougher auto emissions standards than the federal government.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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