Conservative Texas Rep. Hall Joins GOP

AUSTIN, Texas - After nearly a quarter-century as one of the most conservative Democrats in Congress, Texas Rep. Ralph Hall switched parties to become a Republican and said he expects support from the White House.

"I've known (President Bush (news - web sites)) since he was a young boy. He's a Godly man. He's a Texan and he was the governor and he's our friend," Hall told The Associated Press Friday. Bush praised Hall's decision, welcoming him to the Republican Party.

"Ralph is a close friend of the Bush family. He is a well-respected leader of the highest integrity, and a tireless advocate for the people of Texas," Bush said.

Hall, 80, made the move Friday, the final day for candidates to file to get their names on the ballot for Texas' March 9 primary.

Hall's switch follows a GOP-led drive bitterly contested by Democrats to remake Texas' congressional districts more to their liking. Party strategists contend they can gain five or more seats through a mid-decade redistricting, a change that could greatly strengthen their grip on power in the House.

Democrats and some minority groups objected to the plan, saying it violates minority rights, and challenged it in court. A three-judge federal panel was evaluating the districts and expected to rule soon.

Before Hall's move, the House had 228 Republicans, 205 Democrats, 1 Democrat-leaning independent and 1 vacancy.

Hall said he would have resigned if the old redistricting map had been overturned, but when no ruling came from the court, he decided to run as a Republican.

"I think I can get re-elected much easier if I run as a Republican," Hall said.

He told The Associated Press that he's always said that if being a Democrat hurt his district, he would switch or resign. He said GOP leaders had recently refused to place money for his district in a spending bill and "the only reason I was given was I was a Democrat."

He also said he did not agree with "all these guys running against the president."

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, said Democrats are "reaping what they've sown."

"Their leaders have lined up behind Howard Dean (news - web sites)'s brand of Angry, intolerant politics. They've made their message clear: 'moderates need not apply' and that's a sad trend for a once-great party," DeLay said.

Rep. Martin Frost, Texas' most senior Democrat, declined comment late Friday. Texas Democratic Party Chairman Charles Soechting said he was disappointed but would wait to hear from Hall before commenting further.

Hall was first elected to the House in 1980 and has long been one of the most conservative Democrats in Congress. Speculation that he might switch parties first surfaced in 1995, when the GOP gained control of the House for the first time in 40 years.

He said then he wouldn't, arguing that it would be better to try and move the Democratic party toward the middle.

Hall's defection has historic overtones. His district in Texas includes territory once represented in Congress by the late Sam Rayburn, who served as a Democratic speaker for much of the time between 1940 and 1961.