WASHINGTON -- Democrats defied Speaker-designate Nancy Pelosi by boosting Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland to House majority leader yesterday after a bitter fight that exposed divisions within the party even before it takes charge in Congress.
The lopsided vote was a sharp blow to Pelosi's credibility and raised questions about her effectiveness. The California congresswoman came up far short after waging an intensely personal, bare-knuckled drive to promote Rep. John P. Murtha of Pennsylvania as her No. 2.
After unanimously voting to name Pelosi as their choice for speaker - the first woman to attain the post - Democrats dealt the daughter of a prominent Baltimore political family her first big defeat, a 149-86 vote for Hoyer, who has held the party's second slot for four years.
"Steny came out a big winner today. It was a stunning victory for him," Pelosi said after an hours-long, closed-door meeting. Members rejected her personal appeal in behalf of Murtha, 74, a hawkish former Marine who was an early and adamant proponent for pulling U.S. troops out of Iraq.
"Let the healing begin," said Pelosi, who raised hands with Hoyer in a victory salute initiated by the Southern Maryland congressman.
The deeper significance of the vote might have been to reveal the broader drama unfolding within Democratic ranks around the party's position on Iraq, and how aggressively it will be able to use its majority to push for a swift U.S. troop withdrawal.
Hoyer opposed Murtha's early call for an immediate pullout from Iraq, which Pelosi called a key to the Democrats' victory in last week's election.
In comments to reporters, Hoyer tried to play down his differences with Pelosi, first aired publicly when the two sparred four years ago for the post of party whip. Still, some lawmakers harbor lingering doubts about why Pelosi inserted herself in the race and said she had done serious damage to herself politically and to her party's standing.
"The caucus is fractured in a way because of this majority leader race, and her involvement in the race," said Rep. Allen Boyd of Florida. "I believe that her biggest challenge, starting from this moment on, is to figure out how to wrap her arms around all of the caucus, bring them in, make sure they feel included as a part of the team as we move forward.
"It was a mistake on her part to get so heavily involved in the race," said Boyd, a Hoyer supporter.
California Rep. Maxine Waters, also a Hoyer supporter, said Pelosi's campaign - in which she and her lieutenants urged lawmakers to abandon commitments to Hoyer or risk losing their chances at coveted committee posts - had raised serious questions within the party.
"What most people didn't understand was the why's of it all," Waters said.
But she added - in what could portend difficult days ahead as Pelosi attempts to impose order on her caucus - that lawmakers had mostly ignored Pelosi's 11th-hour effort to sway them in Murtha's favor.
"Once it was clear that Ms. Pelosi was in strong support of Mr. Murtha, people just held to their convictions and to their feelings about Mr. Hoyer," Waters said. "People just said, `I wonder why?' and just kept on moving and voted for" Hoyer.
Pelosi's strongest backers suggested that she had accomplished exactly what she wanted by wading into the race. Her goal was to display characteristics vital to establishing herself as a strong speaker: staunch loyalty and a willingness to play hardball to get the inner circle - and the policies - that she wants.
"She eats nails for breakfast, and it's tough," said Rep. Kendrick B. Meek of Florida, a Murtha supporter. "This is just one chapter in Nancy Pelosi's book of leadership. Leadership is lonely."
"Listen, she was willing to take the risk and put herself out there for this," said Brendan Daly, a Pelosi spokesman. "She knew what she was getting into, and she felt it was important enough to do it."
But the move exposed Pelosi to early derision from Republicans, who looked on gleefully at the spectacle of Democrats turning on each other during their first few moments in the spotlight as a majority.
"Pelosi's in the self-destruct mode," Rep. Ray LaHood of Illinois told MSNBC.
Analysts said the outcome should serve as a cautionary tale for Pelosi about what happens when a leader tries to use hardball tactics against a diverse group. Hoyer's robust margin of victory came from fiscally conservative Blue Dogs and the crop of incoming freshmen, many of whom were moderates hand-picked by him for their ability to compete with Republicans in swing districts.
"This is a warning to the speaker that she cannot be a strong-arm leader to a new caucus with such a slender majority. She makes Newt [Gingrich] look like Caspar Milquetoast," said Steven E. Schier, a Carleton College political scientist. "You cannot use this hierarchical, top-down, hard-knock style with such a far-flung group of people."
Pelosi will have to deal with the increasingly urgent task of forging consensus among Democrats about Iraq.
Pelosi has "been nicked and bruised. Is she bleeding from a political artery? No," said William A. Galston, a Clinton White House aide. But the spat pointed up what could be the biggest challenge for the new speaker.
"The race between Steny Hoyer and Jack Murtha was shadowboxing. The real issue underlying this is how far is the Democratic Party willing to go in calling for a reversal of the policy in Iraq," Galston said. "The new speaker and House Democrats will be effective only to the extent that they're unified on that, and that hasn't happened yet."