By Richard Cowan and Susan Cornwell
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Nancy Pelosi on Wednesday was nominated as expected by fellow Democrats to be speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, but her level of support may fall short of what she needs for a sure win in January's election for the top job in the chamber.
Pelosi, who made history as the first woman to hold the post when she was speaker from 2007 to 2011, won the Democratic nomination by a vote of 203-32, putting her in contention in the early January contest in which both Democrats and Republicans will vote.
She will need about 218 votes to claim the job as Democrats take control of the House in January after their gains in the Nov. 6 congressional elections. Pelosi is attempting the rare feat of securing the speaker's gavel for a non-consecutive term.
After the secret-ballot voting concluded, Pelosi said: "I'm proud to be the nominee of the House Democratic caucus once again for speaker of the House."
Pelosi's top lieutenants, Representatives Steny Hoyer and James Clyburn, were chosen by their fellow Democrats to be House majority leader and majority whip respectively in 2019-2020. The full House does not vote on those appointments.
The small faction of Democrats opposing Pelosi, a 78-year-old San Francisco liberal, has argued that the party needs new, younger leadership, but the anti-Pelosi group has failed to produce a rival candidate to challenge her.
Over the next few weeks, Pelosi will try to win over enough naysayers to nail down a victory in January. On Wednesday, she made progress when she secured the support of a small group of centrist Democrats belonging to the bipartisan "Problem Solvers Caucus" by agreeing to back reforms in how the House operates.
"We're in pretty good shape" for January, Pelosi said.
But at a meeting Pelosi held with other dissenters before her nomination, their concerns were "dismissed outright," Representative Kathleen Rice said in a statement afterward.
Rice told reporters that the members of the Democratic leadership team needed to provide a time frame for when they would retire - a move that could weaken their effectiveness while they serve as leaders.
If Pelosi does come up short, Democrats will have to scurry before the January House vote to find an acceptable replacement and avoid a messy floor fight at the start of the year.
Republicans, who next year will be in the minority in the House for the first time in eight years, are expected to vote against any Democratic nominee for speaker.
TAKING ON TRUMP
Pelosi, currently the House Democratic leader and a national political fixture for decades, wants to lead the party's challenge to Republican President Donald Trump's political and legislative agendas.
The powerful House speaker sets the chamber's legislative agenda and is second, behind the vice president, in the line of emergency succession to the president.
Representative Gerry Connolly said Pelosi's opponents lacked a game plan for vanquishing her. "Meanwhile, we have a very skilled, tested experienced leader who doesn't need on-the-job training," he said, referring to Pelosi.
Her detractors have argued that they could control just enough votes to topple Pelosi during the vote by the full House.
When the new Congress convenes in January, Democrats will hold at least 233 of the House's 435 seats. Assuming that all Republicans oppose Pelosi for speaker, just 17 or 18 Democratic opponents could be enough to block her from becoming speaker.
Democrats clamoring for fresh faces in leadership got a boost on Wednesday when Representative Hakeem Jeffries, 48, beat Representative Barbara Lee, 72, to head the Democratic caucus.
Pelosi has pledged to pursue an agenda next year that includes investing in infrastructure projects, lowering prescription drug prices and changing campaign finance laws to give small donors more sway in elections.
She also has promised to hold investigations into Trump administration activities following two years of lax oversight by Republicans who will still hold their majority in the Senate.
(Reporting by Richard Cowan and Susan Cornwell; Additional reporting by Amanda Becker and Ginger Gibson; Editing by Bill Trott and Peter Cooney)