Pelosi, who represents San Francisco, has lead the Democratic caucus for eight years, including the past four as the speaker of the House.
After losing more than 60 seats in the midterm elections during which Republicans made her a frequent target, some Democrats said it was time for new leadership. But Rep. Heath Shuler, a conservative Democrat from North Carolina, fell short in his challenge against her.
Pelosi said after the vote that she was confident she could lead Democrats back to a majority. When asked why, when polls show most Americans have an unfavorable view of her, she was the best person to continue leading Democrats, Pelosi struck a defiant tone.
"Let me put that in perspective. How would your ratings be if $75 million were spent against you?" she said, referring to the television ad campaigns of Republican candidates and allied groups. "Because I'm an effective leader, because we got the job done on healthcare and Wall Street reform and consumer protections, the list goes on. Because they know that I’m the person who can attract the resources, both intellectual and otherwise, to take us to victory because I have done it before."
A disproportionate number of Democrats who lost their seats this month were more conservative, including nearly half of the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Caucus. Shuler noted, though, that the final tally showed there was a broader coalition that sought a change in leadership.
"It wasn’t about winning or losing this race. It was about truly making a difference within our caucus, to ensure that the moderates were heard,” he said. “We have a seat at the table. I think that’s what most of America would ask.”
He said there was considerable “unrest” during the caucus meeting, noting that a larger number – 68 – supported a motion to delay the leadership vote.
Pelosi's allies challenged that perception.
"I urge you to speak with the overwhelming of our membership who elected Nancy Pelosi to be our leader," said Rep. Xavier Becerra, a Los Angeles Democrat who will serve as the Democratic conference vice chairman. "She has led us to historic heights. And many of us believe that we are prepared to take this country to even greater heights."
"They know her will, and more importantly, they know her heart. And that's what was felt today -- the heartfelt feeling of this caucus behind this great leader," added Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.), the conference chair.
Meanwhile, the current minority leader, John Boehner, was chosen unanimously by his Republican colleagues to stand for speaker of the House when the new Congress convenes in January. They even celebrated with a birthday cake, marking his 61st birthday today.
"This is the dawn of a new majority, one I believe will be humbler, wiser and more focused than its predecessors on the priorities of the people," Boehner, of Ohio, told his colleagues. "We're going to move ahead with humility, cheerful in our demeanor, and steady in our principles -- always mindful that the power we hold is entrusted to us by our fellow countrymen and the nation we serve."
Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele said Democrats were ignoring the message voters sent Nov. 2.
“This vote for leadership is an unfortunate reminder that Democrats will do and say whatever it takes to get elected, but when it comes to governing, their allegiance is to a far-left agenda of bigger government, higher taxes and more spending,” he said in a statement.
Despite his failed challenge to Pelosi, Shuler said he would not be voting for Boehner when the full House selects its leader in January. He, and conservative Democrats joining him, also said they would not switch parties.
“We’re Democrats,” he said.
Lisa Mascaro and Richard Simon contributed to this report.