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Pelosi Thwarts Challenge, Will Remain House Democratic Leader

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. Photographer: Olivier Douliery/Pool via Bloomberg

Outgoing U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi overcame a challenge led by Democrats from Republican-leaning areas to remain her party’s leader in the chamber after a loss of majority status she said wasn’t her fault.

House Democrats yesterday elected Pelosi to be minority leader over Representative Heath Shuler of North Carolina on a 150-43 vote that reflected divisions over their best path forward when they cede control to Republicans in January. The vote, in a closed-door meeting, came as Republicans in their own gathering united to designate John Boehner of Ohio to be the next House speaker.

Pelosi, of California, was selected after some Democrats made an unsuccessful effort to delay the leadership selections to allow the party more time to consider the message delivered by voters. That effort lost 129-68.

At a news conference, Pelosi said she was not the cause of the Democrats’ ballot-box beating on Nov. 2, in which they suffered a net loss of at least 61 House seats. Pelosi said the party was dragged down by a national jobless rate at or above 9.5 percent for the last 14 months and waves of attack ads by pro-Republican outside groups who often focused their criticism on her.

“How would your ratings be if $75 million were spent against you?” Pelosi, 70, said when a reporter questioned her about her standing among independent voters.

Shuler, 38, said his challenge to Pelosi helped highlight the views of Democrats who want their leaders to take a more middle-of-the-road approach on policy.

‘Having a Voice’

“It wasn’t about winning the race, it was about having a voice within our caucus,” he said after yesterday’s vote.

Shuler, a former quarterback in the National Football League, won a third term in the midterm elections from a district that Republican presidential candidate John McCain won in 2008. Like Shuler, many of the House Democrats who publicly opposed keeping Pelosi as their leader come from districts McCain carried and are members of a group called the Blue Dog Coalition.

The coalition numbers about 24 after about half of its members lost in his month’s elections. Noting the 50 votes cast against Pelosi yesterday, Shuler said, “It was a message that it is more than just the Blue Dogs that have a concern about what’s going on.”

One of Pelosi’s supporters, though, said her win signals that President Barack Obama needs to be more of a fighter for party principles. “Now, Nancy Pelosi’s No. 1 job is to hold the line on the Obama administration’s back-pedaling on some basic core Democratic values,” Representative Tim Ryan, an Ohio Democrat, told reporters.

Other Leaders

Along with Pelosi, Democrats decided to retain all their current leadership team when the new session of Congress begins in early January.

Steny Hoyer of Maryland, 71, was selected minority whip by acclamation, putting him again in the No. 2 job. He has served as majority leader during Pelosi’s speakership.

James Clyburn of South Carolina, 70, was elected assistant leader, a job Pelosi created days ago to avert a leadership battle between him and Hoyer. Clyburn, who has been the majority whip, initially planned to seek the minority whip post.

Representative John Larson, 62, of Connecticut, was re-elected to lead the House Democratic Caucus.

Boehner Comeback

Among Republicans, Boehner’s designation as speaker --which the full House must ratify in January -- caps a 20-year congressional career and a comeback from an exile from leadership after he was on the fringes of a 1997 plot to depose then-Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Georgia Republican.

Boehner, who turned 61 yesterday, has been minority leader since Democrats took power in 2007.

Representative Eric Cantor, 47, of Virginia was chosen as the new majority leader. He is currently minority whip. Representative Kevin McCarthy, 45, of California was picked to succeed Cantor as the Republican whip.

Boehner had put McCarthy in charge of recruiting House candidates to challenge Democrats this year. The Republicans needed a net gain of at least 39 seats to take control of the chamber; their pickups in the elections were the biggest for their party since 1938.

Pelosi’s Record

As speaker, Pelosi muscled through the House an overhaul of the U.S. health-care system, an economic stimulus package, the biggest changes in financial regulations since the Great Depression, and legislation that would curb greenhouse-gas emissions. The health-care overhaul, the stimulus and the financial regulation measure became law; the climate bill stalled in the Senate.

Pelosi, first elected to her San Francisco-based seat in 1987, moved quickly after the midterm elections to end speculation she would give up her position as the top House Democrat. She announced on Nov. 5 through a Twitter message that she would seek the minority leader’s job as some Democrats began to call for her to step aside, arguing that she had become a political liability.

On election night, exit polls showed Republican candidates dominated among voters in House races who described themselves as independents. Poll results compiled by the Associated Press found that 56 percent of independents voted for a Republican, while 37 percent supported a Democrat.

A test of Pelosi’s influence will come today when the Democratic caucus votes on a series of rules changes that would dilute her power to make committee assignments.

Representative Jim Matheson, a Utah Democrat who supported Shuler yesterday, has proposed that members of the Democratic Policy and Steering Committee be elected by the caucus. Currently, Pelosi names the committee members.

Matheson similarly wants the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to be elected, rather than appointed by Pelosi.

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