First Woman Aims to Lead House Dems

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House Democrats moved Thursday to choose a liberal Californian as the first female leader of either party. Rep. Nancy Pelosi would represent her party in a new Republican-controlled Congress led by ardent and often combative conservatives determined to advance President Bush's agenda.

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.

House Democrats were looking to make Pelosi, who opposed President Bush on Iraq, to succeed Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri as their leader. Gephardt decided to step down after eight years when Democrats lost House seats and control of the Senate in last week's election.

Pelosi, 62, who currently is the Democratic whip, no. 2 in the party, is being challenged by two colleagues who would also make party history: Rep. Marcy Kaptur of Ohio, also vying to become the first woman leader, and 32-year-old Harold Ford of Tennessee, who would be the first black to head the party.

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.

Ford in particular, in campaigning against Pelosi, has stressed that his more moderate views on many issues better reflect where the nation is heading. Ford, for example, supported giving Bush powers to go to war against Iraq, while Pelosi did not.

On Wednesday 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.

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 Chairman.

— 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.