WASHINGTON – Rep. Nancy Pelosi made history Thursday when House Democrats elected her as the next House minority leader. Pelosi will be the first woman leader of a party caucus on Capitol Hill.
The vote, conducted by secret ballot, was 177-29.
Speaking to reporters after the vote, Pelosi said her colleagues voted "in an across-the-board, overwhelming vote of support and I am very, very honored."
Pelosi, who currently holds the highest position for a woman in the House as House minority whip, will replace Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri, who announced after this year's midterm elections that he would step down from the position.
"It is a staggering honor," Pelosi said. "There is no question about it. But to follow in the footsteps of Dick Gephardt is a very special honor indeed."
Gephardt voiced confidence that Pelosi has what it takes to get the job done.
"Nancy Pelosi will do a fabulous job — she already has for our caucus," Gephardt said during a post-vote press conference. "She won this on her merit and her leadership capability and I'm confident that with her leadership, we're going to win back the House in 2004."
Pelosi, who represents San Francisco, will steer the Democrats in a new Republican-controlled Congress determined to advance Bush's agenda. Some critics have said, however, that they fear she will move the party too far to the left, a move that may hurt Democrats in the 2004 election.
Pelosi opposed President Bush on whether to go to war with Iraq. She also helped write an alternative homeland security bill to that of House Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas, who was leading Bush's charge on the issue in that chamber.
But after the vote Thursday, Pelosi promised that Democrats would stand "shoulder to shoulder" with Bush in the war on terror.
Pelosi has chosen a theme of "safety and soundness for the American people" for her tenure as Democratic leaders in the House, in terms of national security and more domestic concerns such as the economy.
"Where we can find our common ground on the economy and other domestic issues, we shall seek it," she said. "We have a big job to do, we're ready for it and we're getting ready for victory."
Pelosi said that her first act as Democratic leader would be to nominate Rep. John Spratt of South Carolina, a respected moderate, as her assistant. "His skill in building a strong, diverse coalition will be a tremendous asset," she said.
Pelosi, 62, who currently is the No. 2 in the party, was challenged by two colleagues who would also make party history: Rep. Marcy Kaptur of Ohio, also vying to become the first woman leader, and the 32-year-old Rep. Harold Ford Jr., a Democrat from Al Gore's home state of Tennessee, who would be the first black to head the party.
Kaptur withdrew her name from the race shortly before the vote.
Meanwhile, Texas Rep. Tom DeLay, a strident maintainer of GOP discipline elected Wednesday to be the party's new majority leader, promised to "work hard to bring Republicans and willing Democrats together," but said his goals remain making last year's tax cuts and abolition of inheritance taxes permanent.
Rep. Deborah Pryce of Ohio on Wednesday rose higher than any woman in House GOP history, being elected to chair the Republican Conference, the No. 4 post in the party.
The first House Democratic vote of the day was the most difficult, with Rep. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, a leader of the Hispanic caucus, narrowly edging out Connecticut's Rosa DeLauro, a liberal activist and deputy to Gephardt, for the party's No. 3 position, caucus chairman. Democratic aides said the margin was one vote.
The House Democratic elections wrap up votes by both parties on their leadership teams for the 108th Congress to begin in January. Senate Democrats on Wednesday re-elected Tom Daschle as their leader, while Senate Republicans re-elected Trent Lott and House Republicans Dennis Hastert. Hastert has been House speaker since taking over from Newt Gingrich in 1998.
With Senate Republicans securing at least 51 seats in the election, Lott, R-Miss., will once again become majority leader, regaining the post he ceded to Daschle, D-S.D., when Democrats became the majority party 18 months ago. His chief deputy will be Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, a fierce opponent of efforts to limit campaign spending.
Among the most notable leadership changes, DeLay, the current party whip, moves up to House majority leader, succeeding fellow Texan Dick Armey, who is retiring.
"He's an extremely hard-working man and of course he's got a good foundation of belief system," Armey said of DeLay, nicknamed "the Hammer" because of his ability to keep the party in line on key votes.
Lott, who took over as Senate Republican leader when Sen. Bob Dole resigned in 1996 to run for president, said he would make an effort to break the partisan logjam that characterized the last months of the Senate under Daschle's leadership. "It will be tough," he said. "There will be times when I have to do things the Democrats won't like."
Pelosi, while expected to pit her liberal credentials against the solidly conservative GOP leadership, was also trying to convince moderate and conservative Democrats that she wouldn't estrange the party from American voters who are increasingly middle-of-the-road in their views.
Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., who is known for working well with Republicans, is slated to become the Democratic whip.
Among other leaders chosen Wednesday:
— Senate Democrats re-elected Harry Reid of Nevada as the assistant Democratic leader, or whip, and Barbara Mikulski of Maryland as the party conference chairman.
— Senate Republicans chose Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania as their conference chairman, Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas as conference vice chairman, Jon Kyl of Arizona as policy committee chairman and George Allen of Virginia to head the fund-raising Senatorial Campaign Committee.
— House Republicans elected Roy Blunt of Missouri, a DeLay ally, to succeed DeLay as whip. Jack Kingston of Georgia became conference vice chairman and John Doolittle of California the conference secretary. Christopher Cox of California remained policy committee chairman. Thomas Reynolds of New York is the next head of the National Republican Congressional Committee.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.