Rep. Michael Forbes, a New Yorker with a strong independent streak, said Saturday he is bolting a Republican Party that has become "a captive of extremists" so he can join a more open Democratic Party.
"The Republican Party over the last four and a half years has been defined through the actions of its extremists in the House of Representatives," Forbes said in announcing his decision at a news conference at his Long Island, N.Y., home.
"It has become an angry, narrow-minded, intolerant and uncaring majority, incapable of governing at all, much less from the center, and tone-deaf to the concerns of a vast majority of Americans."
Forbes said he talked over his decision in a personal, private meeting and also met with House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill. An aide said Hastert tried to persuade Forbes to stay in the GOP.
In Washington, President Clinton welcomed the new Democrat.
"Michael Forbes has changed parties because he believes it is best for his constituents, for the people of New York and for our country," Clinton said in a statement. "He is joining a party that welcomes independent thinking and the courage to change."
A switch would provide a huge psychological boost for Democrats, who need to gain only a half-dozen seats in next year's elections to be assured of winning control of the House.
Forbes, 47, defeated a Democrat in 1994 to win his seat, one of more than 70 GOP first-termers who helped usher in a Republican majority in the House for the first time in 40 years. He was rewarded with a prized seat on the Appropriations Committee, a panel with enormous influence over federal spending.
Forbes supported the Contract With America in 1995, and has carved out a generally conservative voting record, opposing abortion and voting in 1996 to repeal the ban on certain semiautomatic assault-style weapons.
Last year, he voted in favor of all four impeachment charges brought against President Clinton.
At the same time, he has sided with environmentalists on some issues and voted to raise the minimum wage in 1996.
He infuriated the GOP leadership in 1997 when he refused to vote for former Rep. Newt Gingrich's re-election as speaker, citing concerns over a just-completed ethics investigation.
His defection on that vote was followed by a snub from party regulars, who promptly disinvited him from a dinner honoring outgoing Republican National Committee chairman Haley Barbour.
In late 1998, though, Forbes' stock in the House GOP moved up sharply, the result of his close ties to Rep. Bob Livingston, the Louisiana Republican who was briefly in line to succeed Gingrich as speaker.
Forbes' standing plummeted overnight when Livingston renounced the speakership after admitting to past extra-marital affairs.
He would be the first congressional Republican to switch to the Democrats since the GOP gained a majority in boh the House and Senate six years ago.
Republicans hold 223 seats in the House; Democrats have 210. There is one Independent and one vacancy following the death on Thursday of California Democratic Rep. George Brown.
Five House Democrats switched to the GOP in 1995, and two Democratic senators have done likewise in the last few years.
Forbes is the second Republican to leave his party in less than a week. On Wednesday, Sen. Bob Smith, R-N.H., running at the back of the pack in the race for the GOP presidential nomination, became an independent.
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