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Pelosi becomes first woman to lead House

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Nancy Pelosi, who helped engineer the Democratic takeover of the Congress, was sworn in on Thursday as the first woman to lead the House of Representatives and called her historic political rise a beacon of hope for America.

Pelosi, a California liberal, was chosen as House speaker on a party-line vote of 233-202. The leader of the minority Democrats the past four years, she now is the highest ranking woman in the U.S. government, second behind only the vice president in the line of succession to Republican President George W. Bush.

“This is an historic moment for the Congress, and for the women of this country,” Pelosi declared after taking the gavel. “It is a moment for which we have waited more than 200 years .... For our daughters and granddaughters, now the sky is the limit.”

“By electing me speaker, you have brought us closer to the ideal of equality that is America’s heritage and hope,” Pelosi told colleagues.

Bush, a onetime adversary, especially regarding the unpopular war in Iraq, congratulated Pelosi and pledged to the new leaders: “I’m ready to work with you all.”

Pelosi, 66, had been denounced during the 2006 congressional campaigns by Republicans who claimed she would increase taxes, oppose conservative efforts to ban gay marriage and roll back the war on terror.

But the November 7 elections put Pelosi and fellow Democrats in control of both the House and Senate for the first time in 12 years, largely because of public discontent with the Iraq war.

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Often ignored or even mocked by Bush, the president will now have to negotiate with Pelosi or face defeats on Capitol Hill during his final two years in office.

‘A CALL TO CHANGE’

Pelosi said, “The election of 2006 was a call to change -- not merely to change the control of Congress, but for a new direction for our country. Nowhere were the American people more clear about the need for a new direction than in Iraq.”

Democrats campaigned on a vow to seek a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops.

James Thurber at American University’s Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies, said he had high expectations for Pelosi “because she is a consensus builder -- and a listener as well as a speaker.”

Democrats rallied around an agenda that included measures to increase the minimum wage, cut the interest rates on federal students loans and end a number of subsidies to big oil companies.

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Pelosi promises votes on these bills during the House’s first 100 legislative hours, beginning on Tuesday.

“The real test is not the first 100 hours, but the first six months,” Thurber said.

On the House floor, Pelosi recalled growing up Catholic and Italian in Baltimore, where she learned politics from her big-city mayor father, that began with help for constituents who knocked at their door.

“My parents taught us that public service was a noble calling, and that we had a responsibility to help those in need,” Pelosi said.

She was first elected to Congress in 1987 from her adopted hometown of San Francisco where she raised five children with her husband and earlier served as state party chairwoman.

Pelosi thanked her husband, Paul, of 43 years, and her family for “the confidence they gave me to go from the kitchen to the Congress.”

Additional reporting by Richard Cowan and Andy Sullivan

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