Rep. Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) became the first woman chosen to lead a political party in either chamber of Congress yesterday, taking over as leader of House Democrats as they prepare for their ninth consecutive year in the minority.

Pelosi, 62, who will be the minority leader in the 108th Congress that takes office in January, easily defeated Rep. Harold E. Ford Jr. (Tenn.), 177 to 29, in the contest for the leadership post. A third candidate, Rep. Marcy Kaptur (Ohio), who unexpectedly entered the race Wednesday, just as abruptly dropped out before the vote.

Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (Md.), who has represented a congressional district that includes parts of Prince George's County since 1981, was elected minority whip, the second-ranking leadership post, without opposition.

In the closest race for any leadership position in the next Congress, Rep. Robert Menendez (N.J.) defeated Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro (Conn.), 104 to 103, in their contest to become chairman of the Democratic Caucus. The victory made Menendez the highest-ranking Hispanic in the congressional leadership. Rep. James E. Clyburn (S.C.) was elected vice chairman of the caucus, making him the highest ranking African American in the congressional leadership of either party.

At a news conference after her election, Pelosi, a liberal who is also known as a shrewd political tactician and effective fundraiser, adopted a conciliatory tone toward President Bush and the House GOP majority. She said that after the terrorist attacks of last year, "the Democrats stood shoulder to shoulder with President Bush in the fight against terrorism and we will continue to do so."

Pelosi said House Democrats will attempt to shape a program promoting economic growth and she pledged to cooperate with the GOP on issues where they can find agreement. "Where we can find common ground on economic and other domestic issues, we will seek it," she said. "Where we cannot find that common ground, we must stand our ground."

"I also hope that we can raise the level of civility in the political debate in Congress," Pelosi added.

Ford said he challenged Pelosi for the leadership post to promote "new ideas" from younger Democrats. He said more than half the members of the Democratic Caucus entered Congress after the Republicans took over the House in the 1994 elections and have always been in the minority. "I hope Mrs. Pelosi will reach out to us," Ford said.

By becoming leader of the House Democrats, Pelosi put herself in position to become the first female House speaker if her party regains the majority.

"I didn't run as a woman," she said. "I ran as a seasoned politician and an experienced legislator. It just so happens that I am a woman and we have been waiting a long time for this moment."

Outgoing House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) congratulates his successor for the 108th Congress, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the first woman to head a political party's ranks in either the House or the Senate.