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Republican congressman considers party switch

From John Mercurio and Ted Barrett
CNN Washington

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Facing the prospect of his district being split into four pieces, Rep. Ben Gilman, the senior Republican in New York's congressional delegation, is leaving open the possibility that he'll switch parties.

If he does leave the GOP, Gilman would challenge Rep. Sue Kelly (R) as a Democrat this fall, some sources said. But others expressed doubts that Gilman would bolt from the Republican fold.

Gilman said Wednesday that New York state Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Democrat, recently offered to help his re-election campaign with money and resources if he joins the Democratic Party.

"As I was preparing to leave Mr. Silver's office he said, 'Look Ben, if you're forced into a primary with Sue Kelly, why don't you run as a Democrat and we'll fully endorse you.' " I said, 'That's an interesting proposition,' " Gilman said.

He added, "I'm just exploring all options. I would prefer not to do that. Hopefully the White House will take some interest in our problem. Well, they could urge them to go back to the court plan, which is the most fair and equitable."

However, House Democratic sources from New York were skeptical about the Gilman reports. One knowledgeable Democratic strategist said Gilman is likely trying to gain leverage with state Senate President Joe Bruno, a Republican, before the divided legislature votes on the new House map this week.

Some Republicans have rallied around Gilman, 79, a former House International Relations Committee chairman who was first elected to the House in 1972.

One key House Republican said the Bush administration is likely to find a "valuable role" for Gilman if he is ousted from Congress, perhaps as U.S. ambassador. But the Republican suggested that switching parties to run as a Democrat would not be an "honorable" way to leave Congress.

"Ben's been a loyal and faithful Republican who has carried a lot of water for us. We need to make him aware of the fact that we appreciate it," said the House Republican. "He's [nearly] 80 years old. There are honorable ways to end your career here and there are other ways. He could play a valuable role for the Bush administration."

Gilman played down the prospect of an ambassadorial post. "I haven't heard any offer of any ambassadorships. Every campaign I've heard about an ambassadorship to Siberia, but those things have never taken place," he said. "I have no offers of any kind."




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