WASHINGTON, Nov. 9 -- Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby, a conservative Democrat who often voted with Republicans, switched parties Wednesday in the aftermath of the sweeping GOP victory in Tuesday's congressional elections. Shelby, announcing a move long suspected that he would make, particularly if the GOP did well this this year's midterm vote, said he was becoming a Republican because there was no longer room for him in the Democratic Party. 'Officially, right now, I am changing parties to a party of hope,' Shelby told a Capitol Hill news conference. His decision, following the GOP's capture of eight Democrat-held seats in Tuesday's elections, boosted the new Republican majority in the U.S. Senate to 53-47. Shelby, 60, said Wednesday he had tried working within the Democratic Party during his eight years in the House and eight years in the Senate. 'It has been frustrating because I thought there was room in the Democratic Party for a conservative southern Democrat such as myself,' said Shelby, whose votes last year earned a 64 percent approval rating by the American Conservative Union and a 35 percent approval rating by the liberal Americans for Democratic Action. 'But I can tell you there is not,' said Shelby, who has gained a reputation in Congress as an advocate of single parents, veterans and the elderly. 'There is not room.' Senate Republican leader Bob Dole of Kansas quickly welcomed the move and said: 'We're still accepting applications.' Dole told a news conference he couldn't predict what would happen to Shelby in terms of committee assignments and a chairmanship, but he indicated the Alabama senator would get no special privileges.
Dole said Shelby would be about 35th in terms of seniority in his new party and said his committee assignments would be based on that ranking. Shelby served this year on four committees: Armed Services; Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs; Energy and Natural Resources; and the Special Committee on Aging. He became chairman last year of the Armed Services panel's subcommittee on Force Requirements and Personnel. Shelby's office had denied right through the 1994 campaign, amid predictions that Democrats might lose control of the Senate or come close, that he would consider a party switch if it made the difference for Republicans. His office instead said Shelby, who last won re-election in 1992 and would next face Alabama's voters in 1998, stood by its written statement of May 2, in which Shelby's spokeswoman Laura Cox flatly denied such 'rumors.' 'For years, Repubicans have tried to court conservative, southern Democrats into switching parties,' Cox had said in the statement, 'but Senator Shelby sees his conservative viewpoint as playing an important role within the Democratic party. 'While he is happy in the Democratic Party,' Cox had said in the May statement, 'he would like to see the party's agenda move to the political center, where he believes most Alabamians and Americans are.' Other leading Republican senators who entered Congress as Democrats and later switched parties include Phil Gramm of Texas and Strom Thurmond of South Carolina.