WASHINGTON (CNN) - California Rep. Henry Waxman won the chairmanship of the House Energy and Commerce Committee Thursday, defeating the longtime chairman, John Dingell of Michigan, in a secret ballot vote of the incoming Democratic caucus.
Waxman - first elected to the House in 1974 - defeated Dingell - first elected in 1955 - by a vote of 137 to 122. Dingell has served as the Energy and Commerce Committee's top Democrat for the past 28 years. Waxman was the committee's No. 2 ranking Democrat.
"It was a contentious race, and it was a close one as well," Waxmam said immediately following the vote. "I want to point out... that this in no way diminishes the enormous contribution to our country by Chairman John Dingell." Waxman, a top ally of Speaker Nancy Pelosi, argued that "we needed a change for the committee to have the leadership that will work with this administration... in order to get important issues passed in health care, environmental protection and energy policy."
Regarding Dingell's long tenure in the House and on the committee, Waxman said, "seniority is important, but it should not be a grant of property rights to be chairman for three decades or more."
Waxman's victory over Dingell is viewed as a victory for the more liberal wing of the House Democratic caucus. Dingell, the dean of the Michigan delegation, is fiercely protective of the interests of his home state's struggling automobile industry.
He is also often viewed as hostile to much of the Democratic party's environmental agenda. Waxman, on the other hand, is seen as a strong advocate of tougher environmental regulations.
"Chairman Waxman has been a longtime longtime leader on energy and environmental issues," Gene Karpinski, head of the progressive League of Conservation Voters, said in a statement following the vote.
"We look forward to working with the new Chairman... to promote the clean, renewable energy future that will repower, refuel, and rebuild America."
The Energy and Commerce Committee is expected to play a pivotal role in the consideration of President-elect Obama's ambitious legislative agenda next year. Climate change, energy independence, and health-care reform - all issues considered to be at or near the top of Obama's agenda - all fall under the purview of the committee.
While Obama did not publicly indicate a preference for the chairmanship of the committee, his chief legislative liaison, Phil Schiliro, is a former longtime aide to Waxman.
Dingell has agreed to serve as "Chairman Emeritus" of the committee - a ceremonial title created at Pelosi's suggestion to honor his long service on the committee.
Dingell was elected to his 27th full term earlier this month. He will become the longest serving House member in history in February.