Rep. John Dingell (D-MI) suffered a stinging setback Wednesday when he narrowly lost a vote in the Democratic Steering Committee to challenger Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) for the gavel of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee.

The vote count was 25-22. The entire House Democratic Caucus, which includes all the House Democrats in the 111th Congress, will have a chance Thursday to either approve or reject the committee’s decision. The fate of Dingell, who has been the ranking Democrat on the House energy panel since 1981, will be in the hands of many freshman lawmakers.

Despite the narrow loss, Dingell allies were optimistic going into the caucus vote Thursday. “I was pleasantly surprised” at how well Dingell did, particularly given that the makeup of the steering committee in terms of geographic regions and political leanings was not in favor of Dingell, said Rep. Mike Doyle (D-PA), co-chair of the whip team that is seeking to fend off Waxman’s challenge. The steering committee does not reflect the “same dynamics as our whole caucus,” said Rep. Jim Matheson (D-UT).

“I feel very good about going into our meeting tomorrow [Thursday]” for the full caucus vote, Doyle told reporters during a conference call.

This was an “exceptionally close vote,” and it was a “tougher sell for Mr. Dingell” based on the makeup of the committee, said Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D-SD), a member of the Dingell whip team.”I can’t remember a sitting chairman being removed for no good reason,” added Rep. Allen Boyd (D-FL), a Dingell supporter.

The battle between Dingell, a 53-year veteran of the House and dean of the chamber, and Waxman, who has two decades less experience in the House, is dividing and pressuring Democrats. Some House Democrats are concerned that a Waxman victory could upset the seniority system and cause acrimony in the chamber.

Although House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) hasn’t publicly supported either lawmaker, some believe she may be behind Waxman’s power grab. There has been a history of feuding between Dingell and Pelosi — she stripped him of authority over global warming issues last year. The members of the Dingell whip team would not go as far as to say Pelosi “engineered” the vote.

Waxman, chairman of the House Government Oversight and Reform Committee, launched his bid for chairmanship of the House energy panel the day after the elections. “We will need the very best leadership in Congress and our committees to succeed. That is why after long thought I have decided to seek the chairmanship of the Committee on Energy and Commerce,” he said at the time.

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