House Democrats unanimously elected Rep. Steny H. Hoyer to the number two post of minority whip yesterday, making him the leadership's most visible centrist and Maryland's highest-ranking member of Congress ever.

With Democrats reeling from historic setbacks in last week's House and Senate elections, Hoyer, 63, vowed to close rifts between the party's liberal and moderate factions and disputed claims that a new leadership team headed by Rep. Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) represented a lurch to the left.

"Today's leadership election was not about Democrats moving from one place on the political spectrum to another," Hoyer said, asserting that most Americans agree with Democratic stands on the economy, education, Social Security and the environment. "Our task now is to promote a clear, positive agenda . . . which unifes Democrats -- liberal or conservative -- and appeals to independent voters."

Allies said Hoyer's victory by acclamation positions him to build a national identity after a career of behind-the-scenes work. The 12-term incumbent from Southern Maryland was the party's caucus chairman from 1989 to 1994, its high-mileage candidate recruiter for three straight elections and the sponsor of bipartisan but low-visibility initiatives including national election reform and congressional pay raises.

As whip, Hoyer will operate a vote-counting organization and be tasked with crafting unifying party positions and responses to the GOP. He said he had made no personnel decisions but would build on Pelosi's work as whip.

The job has been a steppingstone to the leader's or even speaker's post. But advancement will be more difficult because Democrats haven't claimed a majority in the House for eight years and Republicans now control the White House and both houses of Congress.

Hoyer, who represented the liberal and heavily African American inner Prince George's suburbs for a decade before he was redistricted in 1990 into a Southern Maryland seat with a rural flavor, was embraced by southern and western Democratic conservatives who have felt increasingly jeopardized by the party's recent weak showing.

While he called President Bush's tax cut plan "a time bomb," Hoyer has supported free trade, a strong military and a balanced budget amendment, and he works often with Republicans.

Rep. Charles W. Stenholm (Tex.), a founder of the fiscally conservative "Blue Dogs" Democratic caucus, was one of five members who nominated Hoyer in a closed-door meeting, where Stenholm issued remarks that listeners took as pointed at Pelosi, whom Republicans have sought to label a liberal "San Francisco Democrat."

"Hoyer has shown what it takes to win in a swing district by winning in one," Stenholm said. "He's a leader who can come to all 435 districts and campaign."

Also speaking for Hoyer were Rep. Barney Frank (Mass.), John Lewis (Ga.), Baron Hill (Ind.) and Lucille Roybal-Allard (Calif.).

"He will give everyone a voice," said Rep. Jim Matheson (Utah), who barely won reelection in one of the country's most Republican states. "That's important to members like me."

For Maryland, the promotion of Hoyer -- a longtime Democratic titan who once served as state Senate president -- marks a watershed. The Free State has never produced a speaker, majority or minority leader, or majority whip.

As the state's highest-ranking House official, Hoyer pledged that "Maryland's interests will be at the table all the time. That doesn't mean they'll always be served . . . but we'll have the opportunity to make our points on things that Maryland needs and wants."

Hoyer maintains scrupulous lists of 19,000 federal jobs and billions in funds he has steered home or defended in Maryland as a senior member of the Appropriations Committee. He played a key role in the state's congressional redistricting, which helped the Democrats win two more seats in Maryland this year.

Hoyer's election also creates an interesting dynamic among the House Democratic leadership. Pelosi's brother and father served as Baltimore mayor, and her father, Thomas J. D'Alesandro Jr., also served in Congress. Hoyer and Pelosi met in the 1960s as young aides to then-U.S. Sen. Daniel Brewster (D-Md.).

The pair vowed to form a solid team and both will be judged on the results in 2004, but they have clashed recently. Pelosi supported Hoyer in his first, unsuccessful run for whip in 1991. But she ran against him last year and won the number two spot 118 to 95.

Hoyer pledged his loyalty yesterday and praised Pelosi as "not only an historic figure" -- as the first woman elected to lead either party in Congress -- "but one of America's great politicians, who understands that bringing people together is what the Democratic Party and what our democracy is all about."

Pelosi, whose supporters rallied to her former foe, introduced Hoyer, cheering: "Yeah, Steny!"

At an afternoon reception, Hoyer proudly introduced Stefanie and Anne, two of his three daughters; their husbands; and two granddaughters, all from Maryland. He also recalled his wife, Judith, who died in 1997.

He also urged Democrats to stay the course, noting that pundits mistakenly pronounced the GOP all but dead in 1964 and Democrats on life support in 1972. Hoyer said President Bush and Republicans exploited the White House bully pulpit and Sept. 11, 2001, to build a campaign around national security.

"Sometimes the voters don't hear us right away, not because the message is wrong or the messenger makes a mistake," he said. "We need to stay on principle."

Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (Md.) was unanimously elected minority whip as House Democrats chose their new leadership: Robert Menendez (N.J.), caucus chairman; Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), Hoyer and James Clyburn (S.C.) caucus vice chairman.