WASHINGTON — House Democrats gambled Wednesday they can return to power under the same leaders who just oversaw a 61-seat election loss, choosing Nancy Pelosi to remain their party chief when they become the minority in January.
Moderate Democrats pleaded for a change to show voters they understand the anger and unrest registered two weeks earlier on Election Day. And Pelosi didn't retain her leadership without a fight, defeating Rep. Heath Shuler of North Carolina, 150-43, in secret balloting in a lengthy closed-door gathering in the Capitol.
In a contrast befitting the Nov. 2 election results, House Republicans kept Rep. John Boehner of Ohio as their leader without opposition, and he will become speaker in the new Congress. Eric Cantor of Virginia will retain the second-ranking party position, which will be majority leader, and Kevin McCarthy of California will be the party whip.
Boehner, who turned 61 on Wednesday, told his colleagues they will usher in "the dawn of a new majority," which he said will be "humbler, wiser, and more focused than its predecessors on the priorities of the people."
Pelosi, the nation's first female House speaker, will become minority leader when the 112th Congress convenes.
"She is the face that defeated us in this last election," declared Florida Rep. Allen Boyd, who was among those who lost re-election fights. However, Pelosi, who presided over big Democratic gains in the 2006 and 2008 elections, remains popular among the liberals who dominate her caucus more than ever. Dissident moderates could not find enough votes to force her aside.
In fact, the Democrats kept their entire leadership team intact despite election losses that President Barack Obama called "a shellacking." They elected Steny Hoyer of Maryland to keep the No. 2 post and Jim Clyburn of South Carolina to hold the third-ranking position, which will be renamed "assistant leader."
Pelosi and Clyburn are 70. Hoyer is 71. Cantor is 47, McCarthy 45.
Pelosi, a Californian, is a prodigious campaign fundraiser and tireless legislator known for listening to her colleagues but pressing them to stick with party leaders on key votes. Her supporters credit her for passing difficult, major legislation such as this year's health care overhaul.
Pelosi praised her lineup Wednesday. "It's a team that took us to victory in '05, in '06, and will take us to victory again," she said. "We extend the hand of friendship to the Republicans, we look forward to hearing their ideas on job creation and deficit reduction."
Some rank-and-file House Democrats said Pelosi pushed them too often to vote on controversial matters fated to die in the Senate. They contended she didn't appreciate the level of anti-Washington hostility in America.
Their anger grew this fall when dozens of GOP candidates assailed Pelosi in campaign ads that linked her to other Democrats.
Yet plenty of Democrats defended her on Wednesday.
"She did a good job of getting legislation through," said Barney Frank of Massachusetts. He downplayed the hubbub over Shuler's challenge, saying, "The focus on who is or who isn't the minority leader is a Washington insider issue."
But Shuler's level of support — plus an earlier 129-68 vote against postponing the election that Pelosi wanted to wrap up quickly — underscored the degree of discontent in a caucus that Pelosi had largely bent to her will in the past four years.
The next two years could be more challenging and less enjoyable for Pelosi and her allies. Republicans will control the House and will be able to filibuster almost any bill in the Senate. Obama has signaled he may seek compromises that could infuriate Pelosi's liberal supporters.
Shuler said his loss to Pelosi was expected but served as a warning that Democrats can't reject all Republican ideas all of the time. He and his allies said Shuler's 43 votes proved that the dissatisfaction with keeping Pelosi as leader extended well beyond the conservative "Blue Dog" Democrats, whose ranks were reduced to 24 in the Nov. 2 election.
"There was a lot of unrest in the room," Shuler said.
House Democrats were scheduled Thursday to hold a third straight day of closed-door meetings, which many members have used to vent their frustration and anger over their heavy losses. These rifts, if unresolved, could complicate the party's efforts to re-elect Obama and to win back the House majority in 2012.
Pelosi faces a potentially embarrassing public rebuke from at least some of her detractors on the first day of the new Congress in January. Shuler and the three centrist Democrats who nominated him to be leader — Reps. Larry Kissel of North Carolina, Mike Ross of Arkansas and Jim Matheson of Utah — said they would not vote for her when their turns come to rise and cast a ceremonial vote for speaker.
Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Calif., said Wednesday's unsuccessful effort to postpone the party leadership elections reflected substantial angst among Democrats about how to rebuild.
"There's a lot of concern in the caucus about the direction that we want to go from here, and I think 68 votes shows significant concern," Cardoza said. "The caucus will continue to do a great deal of soul-searching."
Some lawmakers who voted for Pelosi did so with little apparent joy. "We got shellacked" in the midterm elections, said Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif. "We are not happy."
Associated Press writers Jim Abrams, Laurie Kellman, Julie Hirschfeld Davis and Donna Cassata contributed to this report.