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House Democrats elect Pelosi as leader

She wins the minority leader's job on a 150-43 secret-ballot vote that lays bare deep divisions within her caucus.

November 18, 2010|By Richard Simon and Lisa Mascaro, Los Angeles Times and Tribune Washington Bureau

Reporting from Washington — Outgoing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Wednesday overcame divisions within her dispirited Democratic caucus to remain her party's leader, even after a member of the rank and file who lost his reelection bid called her "the face of our defeat" in this month's GOP blowout.

Pelosi won the minority leader's job on a 150-43 secret-ballot vote that laid bare deep divisions within her caucus over whether the San Francisco liberal was the right person to try to lead Democrats back to power in 2012.

Her selection came as members of both parties gathered this week in the House and Senate to choose leaders for the session of Congress beginning next year. Rep. John A. Boehner of Ohio, as expected, was selected by Republicans as the next House speaker.

Pelosi's was the only actively contested leadership election, and voting was limited to Democrats who will serve in the next Congress. But party members who lost their bids for reelection after Republicans ran attack ads linking them to Pelosi's "liberal agenda" delivered rare public criticism of their leader.

"I don't know how we go into these districts, like the one I represent, and recruit good, moderate Democratic candidates if you have the exact same leadership team that you had in place when we lost the majority," said Rep. Allen Boyd (D-Fla.).

Rep. Gene Taylor of Mississippi, another defeated Democrat, said former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich did the right thing when he saw he was a drag on his party: "He went away."

Some Democrats who won reelection also expressed anxiety. "The voters spoke," Rep. Jim Matheson of Utah said. "They want a new direction."

But Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.), nominating Pelosi to be party leader, told his colleagues, according to a Democratic leadership aide in the closed-door meeting: "How can we fold on this woman when she is not folding on us?"

"The person who is the best to lead us back to the majority is the one who led us here in the first place," Doyle added, according to the leadership aide. Pelosi served as House minority leader before Democrats won control of the House in 2006, paving her way to become the first woman speaker.

Pelosi, 70, will hand over the speaker's gavel in January to Boehner, who celebrated his 61st birthday with a cake and a song from fellow Republicans after their leadership votes.

Also in the GOP election, Rep. Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield was elected to his party's third-ranking position of whip, ensuring California will continue to enjoy clout in the new Congress. A number of California Republicans also are expected to win committee chairmanships in a few weeks.

Pelosi, after the vote, rejected the notion that her low public approval rating was a drag on her party.

"How would your ratings be if $75 million were spent against you?" she said, referring to the estimated amount of money spent on TV ads that featured her.

Many of Pelosi's fellow Democrats said they appreciated her prodigious campaign fundraising and believed their party would have held the majority if not for the stubbornly high unemployment rate.

"Whoever is our leader is going to be a polarizing figure," said Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks).

Pelosi defeated Rep. Heath Shuler (D-N.C.), who was backed for minority leader by a number of fellow Democrats from more-conservative districts.

But Pelosi benefitted from a more liberal caucus that is closer to her political views, following the defeat of many of the party's conservative members.

"There is a lot of concern in the caucus about direction and where we go from here," said Rep. Dennis Cardoza (D-Atwater), citing 68 Democrats who voted, in a losing effort, to put off the leadership election.

But Pelosi demonstrated her political skills in averting a messy party leadership fight.

She helped pave the way for Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland to remain the party's second in command as minority whip, and for Rep. James E. Clyburn of South Carolina to continue in the third-ranking position, with the new title of assistant leader. Democrats also reelected Rep. John B. Larson of Connecticut as caucus chairman and Rep. Xavier Becerra of Los Angeles as vice chairman.

Republicans elected Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia as majority leader and Rep. Jeb Hensarling of Texas as Republican Conference chairman.

A day earlier, senators from both parties elected their leadership teams for the new Congress, keeping top leaders in place. Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) was reelected Republican leader and Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona the Republican whip. Democratic Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada was reelected majority leader and Richard J. Durbin of Illinois the majority whip.

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