The Associated Press

Waxman an old master in art of the political deal, US

Waxman an old master in art of the political deal


The Associated Press


WASHINGTON (AP) -The necktie, replete with Democratic donkeys, sailed toward Tom Davis, propelled in that direction by a very frustrated Henry Waxman.

"You can have your damn tie," the then-chairman of the House Oversight Committee groused to the panel's senior Republican. The tie had been a gift from Davis.

After it landed, Davis remembers, both men cooled down and worked out "whatever it was."

What endures with those who have tangled with Waxman, D-Calif., is his deft handling of such to-the-brink-and-back moments that have made the diminutive, balding representative one of the most effective negotiators in Congress. He's turned that skill to overhauling the nation's health care system, a task both politically and substantively complex.

"This is his capstone," says Rep. Howard Berman, D-Calif., a college friend of Waxman's.

"He's never had to deal with anything as big as this," agrees Davis, who retired from Congress this year after seven terms and counts himself a Waxman admirer. "This is what he's lived his life for."

It's a life propelled by intellect and a tenacity that can look a lot like obsession wrapped in an ordinary, often polite, package.

Henry Arnold Waxman grew up over his father's grocery store in Watts, a mostly black Los Angeles neighborhood that was home, he likes to joke, to one other Jewish kid: his sister. He attended public schools and stayed in town for college and law school at UCLA. He is married, a father of two and a grandfather of four.

Waxman, 69, has spent all four decades of his professional life in public office. At 28, he beat a Democratic incumbent with 64 percent of the vote and went on to win a seat in the state Assembly. Watergate helped pave the way to Congress, whereWaxman took his seat in 1975.

Ever since, he has represented a district as glitzy and glamorous as he is not, home to the Hollywood sign and the industry's biggest and richest stars who make Bel Air and Malibu their homes. Their campaign donations have helped Waxman win every election with more than 60 percent of the vote.

Hobbies? Books on tape, Waxman said through a spokeswoman. And post-"Seinfeld," he watches "The Daily Show" on Comedy Central.

Waxman's life is mainly his work and his family, by all accounts not in that order. But there's little doubt that the deepest muck of political and policy negotiations is his happy place, professionally.

He's been up to his eyeglasses all year on purpose.

Waxman toppled the House's longest-serving member, Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., from the chairmanship of the House Energy and Commerce Committee earlier this year, upending the chamber's seniority system and capturing one of Washington's biggest prizes. Energy and Commerce has one of the broadest jurisdictions of any committee in Congress.

That put Waxman in charge of climate change and health care, a pair of Democratic priorities that many considered legislative missions impossible. Both have been Waxman's pet causes his entire career. But this level of elite dealmaking requires him to put aside an avowedly liberal ideology and focus pragmatically on trading concessions for votes.

"Henry has a way of pushing from a strong position on the issue and then make the deals you need to make to pass it," Berman said. "If he starts out with a softer position, he'll just be pulled even more in that direction."

Legislation to address global warming by making the use of coal more expensive was in some ways the heavier lift. It passed largely because of Waxman's concessions to various factions and a last-minute flurry of horse-trading by Democratic leaders. Even then, 44 Democrats defected. The bill faces a deeply uncertain future in the Senate.

But Waxman has moved on to President Barack Obama's other top priority, an overhaul of the nation's health care system to provide insurance coverage to every American who seeks it. For weeks, a group of 52 conservative and moderate Democrats refused to support the bill unless Waxman agreed to changes to reduce the cost of it.

Private negotiations turned tense, and Waxman put off a committee markup of the bill. Talks with the rebellious Democrats collapsed in acrimony last week.

He then executed a signature throw-down: He threatened to take the bill directly to the House floor and curtail the chances of making changes. As with the tie-throwing incident, the ultimatum led directly to a resolution of sorts. Talks resumed, a handshake ensued, and disaster was averted for the moment.

Professional negotiators call that a reality check.

"Mediators do it all the time, and in many respects Waxman is operating as a mediator," said Robert Bordone, director of the Harvard Negotiation&Mediation Clinical Program. "It's a reminder of the folly of them going it alone."

Anyone who's tangled with Waxman would have a hard time forgetting him. Ask the supporters of the Bush administration who fell under his barrage of letters demanding information on controversies ranging from the Enron scandal to the outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame.

"Tougher than a boiled owl" is how former Sen. Alan K. Simpson, R-Wyo., described Waxman after one wearying set of negotiations.

As chairman of the oversight panel from 2007 to 2009, Waxman and some of the best investigators on Capitol Hill exposed the friendly fire death in Afghanistan of former NFL player Pat Tillman, an Army Ranger. Their report slapped the White House and military officials for a "striking lack of recollection" that delayed the findings.

"I found him to be pugnacious but flexible," said Davis, president of the Republican Main Street Partnership and now a director with Deloitte LLP. "At the end of the day Henry likes being a legislator more than an investigator. He is principled, and not small and petty."