WAXMAN EDGES DINGELL FOR GAVEL…. This comes as something of a surprise.

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) will become the next chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee after House Democrats voted to replace current Chairman John Dingell (D-Mich.).

The dramatic intra-party showdown for the coveted position signals a leftward turn for the Democratic agenda. The outcome was a blow to the seniority system and a victory, at least in perception, for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

Though her aides denied it, many saw the hand of Pelosi in Waxman’s challenge for the post, which conveys great power over how the Democratic agenda of President-elect Barack Obama will be implemented.

Waxman is considered more liberal on issues like climate change, energy and business regulation, and potentially more aggressive on healthcare. Dingell, the longest-serving House lawmaker, is close to the auto industry and autoworkers.

This is a very encouraging development. The Energy and Commerce Committee will be at the heart of the policy making on global warming, environmental, and energy policy, and Waxman will take a far more progressive and ambitious approach than Dingell would have.

According to a report in Roll Call, the final vote among House Democrats was 137 to 122, though the members voted by secret ballot.

I honestly expected Dingell to prevail. He’s been in the House for 27 terms, made a lot of friends, and had organized a large whip team to help him keep his gavel. Giving the gavel to Waxman, Dingell kept reminding us, would represent a shift to the left on energy policy.

Good. Just as Daschle and Baucus have made reform of the healthcare system more likely, Waxman’s new committee chairmanship makes a meaningful energy bill more likely.

Our ideas can save democracy... But we need your help! Donate Now!

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.