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4th party switcher firms GOP grip on Congress

The Republicans picked up another party-switching member of Congress Monday, the latest in a continuing migration that makes slim any chances that Democrats will be able to take back control of Congress next year.

Rep. Greg Laughlin of Texas became the fourth Democrat to switch parties since President Clinton's election.

Rep. Nathan Deal of Georgia and Sens. Richard Shelby of Alabama and Ben Nighthorse Campbell of Colorado preceded him.

Laughlin's switch came on the same day 18 other state and local Democratic officials in Texas _ most of them local judges _ announced they were joining the GOP.

In all, the Republican National Committee says, more than 100 elected Democrats have switched parties since the start of the Clinton administration.

Laughlin is expected to get a seat on the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, which handles tax legislation, as part of the switch.

With the switch by Laughlin, who represents a district that is physically larger than Massachusetts and stretches through rural areas from central Texas to the Gulf Coast, the Republicans now hold a margin of 232-202, with one independent, who usually votes with the Democrats.

The Republicans hold a 54-46 margin in the Senate, counting the two conversions.

"Every day with every party switch, it becomes tougher and tougher, if not impossible, for the Democrats to regain control of the House in 1996," said independent political analyst Stuart Rothenberg. "And after the two Senate switches, the Senate is simply out of reach."

Laughlin, 53, has served in the House since 1989. His voting record has generally earned him higher ratings from business and social conservatives than from labor and social liberals. But overall, his House votes were typical of the dwindling number of conservative Democrats.

"It has become apparent that the conservative principles of the 14th District are not acceptable to the Democratic Party leadership," Laughlin said in announcing his switch.

"In view of the changed dynamics of the House of Representatives after the 1994 elections, my constituency requires me to change my affiliation from the Democratic to the Republican Party if I am to best represent the conservative principles upon which I ran," he said.

Rep. Martin Frost, D-Texas, called on Laughlin to resign and run as a Republican. He said voters should be able to decide whether they want to be represented by a Democrat or a Republican.

Merle Black, an Emory University political scientist, said: "Within the House it is becoming harder and harder to win as a Democrat. A lot of them are certainly nervous about running with Clinton on top of the ticket next year."