Even as Pelosi was enjoying her finest hour politically, her fellow Democrats remained divided by an internal dispute over whom to select as her top lieutenant.
Pelosi officially takes the post in January, succeeding Republican House Speaker Dennis Hastert, when the House convenes and formally elects her in the next session of Congress.
"We made history, and now we will make progress for the American people," Pelosi told members of the rank and file moments after her selection. She vowed that after 12 years in the minority, "We will not be dazzled by money and special interests."
Democrats won the election promising to clean up Congress after a series of corruption and sexual scandals involving top Republican officials. One of the biggest scandals involved the powerful Republican majority leader, Tom DeLay, who was forced to resign.
Pelosi was elevated by her party caucus not long after Democrats went into secret session at the Capitol to choose their leaders.
She asked for unity in the party, but within moments she put her prestige on the line by nominating Rep. John Murtha for majority leader, second in the soon-to-be majority party's hierarchy, in a hotly contested race.
The history of the moment notwithstanding, there was more intrigue surrounding the contest for the No. 2 job.
Pelosi, who was minority leader in the House during the latter years of the Republican ascendancy, passed over her current deputy, Steny Hoyer, and endorsed longtime ally John Murtha to become majority leader.
Yet Murtha could prove a problematic candidate because of his penchant for trading votes for projects in his district and his ties to a 1980 bribery sting in which he was implicated but not charged.
In the so-called Abscam scandal, FBI agents pretending to represent an Arab sheik wanting to reside in the United States and seeking investment opportunities offered bribes to several lawmakers. When offered $50,000, Murtha was recorded as saying, "I'm not interested ... at this point." A House ethics committee issued no findings against him.
"I told them I wanted investment in my district," Murtha told the MSNBC cable television channel on Wednesday. "They put $50,000 on the table and I said, 'I'm not interested.'"
Murtha, a retired Marine who generally has supported U.S. military efforts, has gained considerable attention for his criticism of the administration's Iraq war policies. He steered Pelosi's winning campaign in 2001 against Hoyer for the No. 2 Democratic leadership post, and his supporters say Pelosi deserves a more loyal deputy.
Hoyer, a Pelosi rival, was battling to hold onto the lead in the race with Murtha, and both candidates were predicting victory via a secret ballot, which allows lawmakers to be evasive when asked about their intentions.
The Hoyer-Murtha battle is a no-win situation for Pelosi, who had hoped to avoid the fight. She is expected to be elected speaker of the House, a constitutional office that is second in line for the presidency, when the new Congress convenes in January with a Democratic majority.
A Murtha victory could create hard feelings among Hoyer allies, especially moderate Democrats. On the other hand, a Hoyer victory could be seen as a defeat for Pelosi in her first major move since Election Day.
Either way, the race has roiled a Democratic caucus that will need maximum unity in order to effectively rule the fractious House come January.
Democrats also selected Rep. James Clyburn as majority whip, their No. 3 post. Clyburn, who is black, would become the highest-ever ranking member of his race in Congress. Campaign chairman Rep. Rahm Emanuel was rewarded with the caucus chair post, the No. 4 position for Democrats, for his efforts in leading the party back into the majority.
Meanwhile, House Republicans, soon to be in the minority for the first time since 1994, were to meet in private Thursday to hear presentations from candidates for their leadership posts. Their election was scheduled for Friday.
Finding a replacement for Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois turned into a two-man race between Majority Leader John Boehner, the current No. 2 official, and conservative challenger Rep. Mike Pence.
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