By Russell Berman and Molly K. Hooper - 08/05/10 10:00 AM EDT
Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) believes the November elections will likely weed out some of the “most difficult Democrats” that leadership lawmakers have dealt with this Congress.
In an interview with The Hill, the Energy and Commerce Committee chairman expressed confidence that Democrats will retain the House, and suggested he won’t miss some of the Democrats who won’t be back next year.
Waxman, one of the Democratic Party’s stalwarts, is simply voicing publicly what many in his party have said privately as the reality of the looming November elections sets in. If Democrats retain a majority, it will be smaller but more cohesive.
As Waxman sees it, the fractious coalition of Democrats that House leaders have cobbled together to pass sweeping healthcare and energy bills is not markedly different from the bipartisanship of the past, when Democrats partnered with centrist and liberal Republicans, whom Waxman says are “practically nonexistent at the moment.”
“We’ve been trying to get the Democratic conservatives together with the rest of the Democratic Party, so in effect we’ve gotten bipartisan support among Democrats in the House,” the chairman said with a laugh. “Now we’ll have to work on genuine bipartisanship in the future.”
For much of the early part of his career, the liberal Waxman battled conservative Democrats from the South on the direction of the party. Years later, Waxman is still waging that fight, but now he wields the gavel of one of the most powerful panels in Congress. Waxman became chairman after successfully challenging Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), the former chairman, in 2008.
Waxman has rewarded loyalty to the Democratic agenda through his leadership political action committee, L.A. PAC. Each of the 14 donations of $5,000 the committee made after the final healthcare vote in March went to Democrats who voted yes.
A single contribution of a lesser amount, $3,000, was sent in April to Rep. Walt Minnick (D-Idaho), one of the party’s most vulnerable members, who voted against the bill. In January, Waxman gave $10,000 to Rep. Zack Space (D-Ohio), a month after he voted for the initial House version of healthcare reform. Two months later, Space voted against the final bill.
Democratic conservatives serve little purpose for Waxman, who seemed to relish the thought that a strengthened GOP would mean that the minority party would have to play ball.
“With the increased Republican margins, they won’t be able to act as if they have no responsibilities. I think they are going to be called on to be accountable … so that may produce opportunities for bipartisanship,” Waxman said.
Waxman’s office is filled with photos of the chairmen with world leaders and framed photos of bill signings with presidential pens, presenting visitors with the message that he is a man of action.
The 18-term Southern California lawmaker, whose district includes Hollywood, Santa Monica and Malibu, was once dubbed the “Scariest Guy in Washington” by Time magazine, a reference to his tenure as chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee during the Bush administration, when his approach was more bulldog than watchdog.
In a 2009 survey of lawmakers conducted by The Hill, Waxman was deemed the second most partisan Democratic member of the House behind Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.). But throughout his career, Waxman has shown he is open to compromise, and has effectively cut deals to secure votes.
Former GOP Rep. Tom Davis (Va.), Waxman’s counterpart atop the Oversight committee for six years, praised Waxman for his ability to work with the other side of the aisle.
“We come from completely different backgrounds and have a completely different way of looking at the economy and the national landscape, but I have a healthy respect for his intellect and his integrity and his motivations,” Davis said.
As a chairman who spent months shepherding both healthcare and energy legislation through his committee, Waxman doesn’t express much sympathy for Democrats who took weeks, if not months, to decide how to vote on the high-profile bills.
He tells a story he heard about President Obama showing some tough love to a wavering Democrat, whom he did not identify. The member, Waxman said, told the president: “ ‘If I vote for what you want, I’m just going to lose.’
“And the president said, ‘Look at you, look how you’re reacting. It’s almost as if you’ve lost already. You’ve got to have fight. You’ve got to fight for what you want to do here, and then you’ve got to fight to get elected, and convince your constituents that this is what is in their interest and it’s important.’ ”
So did Obama get the lawmaker’s vote? “I’ll tell you after the election,” Waxman quipped.
Unlike many on the left, Waxman is “very pleased with this administration.”
Waxman has worked extensively with the White House during the 111th Congress. Phil Schiliro, Waxman’s longtime aide, now serves as Obama’s chief liaison to Congress.
“My frustration,” Waxman said, “is more with members of Congress than with the administration.”
Specifically, he is fed up with the Senate and what he calls “the tyranny of 60 votes.”
Waxman joined the growing list of Democrats demanding that the Senate reform the filibuster rules in order to lower the threshold from 60 votes to consider bills.
“You would think that the senators would want it, because they’re ineffective. They’re unable to act,” Waxman continued. “The reason they were elected was to become legislators in what they used to call the ‘upper body’ but we call the ‘other body.’ But we can’t pass laws unless they go through both houses of Congress. We can’t, and the Republicans can’t, and nobody [can] unless they can get 60 votes.”
Waxman doesn’t dispute the notion that climate change legislation is basically dead in this Congress — despite the disastrous Gulf oil spill that liberals hoped would spur action to reduce U.S. dependency on fossil fuels.
Instead, it did the opposite, because lawmakers from the region have ramped up their push for offshore drilling.
“They’re so dependent on drilling for oil that they were afraid that a big part of their economy would be hampered if we had even the moratorium, let alone a cessation of drilling. They wanted even now to start drilling even before we can assure the drilling would be done safely,” Waxman complained, adding opponents of the climate change bill “had propagandized so heavily against it that they weren’t ready to budge off their position.”
Waxman could provide no clear outline for the future of climate change legislation, blaming the 60-vote requirement in the Senate.
But “the issue is not going to go away,” he warned.
And Waxman’s not going away either, even if Republicans win the House.
The 70-year-old lawmaker said, “I have no plans to leave. I’ve been here with Democrats in control and with Republicans in control, and it’s a lot better when Democrats are in control.”
Editor's note: Waxman issued the following response to this article.
This story was updated Aug. 5 at 4:15 p.m.