Salena Zito

WASHINGTON – Minutes before the roll-call vote for the next House speaker, U.S. Rep. Jason Altmire, D-Pa., gingerly sat down near the back of the chamber.

When his name was called, Altmire did not hesitate to stand and announce Heath Shuler, a congressman from North Carolina, as his choice.

There certainly was hesitation in the rest of chamber, however.

A flicker of annoyance passed over the face of outgoing Speaker Nancy Pelosi, slightly fidgeting in the minority leader's seat on the House floor.

Forty-one minutes and 434 votes later, Altmire was the first of 19 Democrats to voice their opposition to Pelosi, the largest public vote of no confidence for a party's nominee in more than 80 years.

Altmire’s symbolic vote against Pelosi was less a profile in courage than an in-your-face reminder that Democrats are fractured.

Although the media has focused on how the new House speaker, Republican John Boehner, must struggle to try to unite traditional Republicans with more outspoken Tea Partiers, quite a bit more action may take place on the minority's side.

“First, 19 Democratic members voted against Pelosi, which suggests that while she holds the favor of a large majority of her caucus, she does not have unqualified support,” explains Villanova University political science professor Lara Brown.

Second, those Democrats who support her tend to be like her – meaning that they tend to be long-serving liberals from safe seats, such as fellow California congressmen George Miller and Henry Waxman, Brown says.

This implies that she and her shrunken caucus members may take it upon themselves to become the Washington firewall for their party’s progressive wing.

They may not only do battle against House Republicans, Brown says, but also against President Barack Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, both of whom likely realize that only by moving to the center and compromising with Republicans can they rack up some achievements to run on in 2012.

Democrats are about to face what all parties experience after losing: a very public battle between its factions over its ideological future.

Since Pelosi has not stepped off the political stage, this fight may not simply be an asymmetric power struggle between a party's officeholders and its outsiders or activists. It may become a more entrenched battle in which both sides have institutional arsenals and dedicated supporters.

Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.