WASHINGTON – Georgia Sen. Zell Miller said Wednesday he will not defect to the Republican Party, and White House officials said they were backing off on fresh recruitment efforts.
It was the second time in two weeks that Miller, a first-year senator who has aligned with Republicans on many key votes, publicly stated his stance to quash rumors of a party switch. However, his party endorsement came with a warning.
"While I am certain that in the future I will often vote with President Bush and the Republicans on many issues, I will not switch to the Republican Party and have no need to proclaim myself an independent," he said in a statement.
"But a word of warning to my fellow Democrats at this time: What is sorely needed around here is much more getting along and much less getting even. The poisonous partisanship that has pervaded this place on both sides of the aisle must end."
Miller's statement was prompted by word that Vermont Republican Sen. James Jeffords planned to leave the GOP and become an independent.
Meanwhile, Rhode Island Sen. Lincoln Chafee, a moderate Republican who has upset the White House by joining Democrats on several key votes, said he had no plans to leave the GOP but would not completely dismiss the possibility.
Asked if he absolutely would remain a Republican, Chafee replied: "I can't say absolutely on anything."
Several moderate Democrats remain possible targets of GOP recruitment efforts, among them Louisiana Sens. Mary Landrieu and John Breaux, and Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson.
Nelson said he had no plans to switch and doubted any other Democrats would. "I don't anticipate that that's going to happen," he said.
Despite Miller's statement, many still believe he is the GOP's best hope for a defection.
A lifelong Democrat, Miller has criticized his party and sided with Republicans on issues ranging from education to ergonomics to tax cuts. He also was the first Democrat to publicly support former Sen. John Ashcroft as attorney general.
Talk of a party switch intensified earlier this month after Miller's muted denial to a report he might bolt for the GOP. In a statement, Miller declared he would not switch "at this time" but praised the way in which Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, did in the 1980s. A week later, Miller gave a speech to a conservative group and blasted Democrats for their economic policies.
The next day, under pressure to clearly state his intention, Miller pledged to remain a Democrat.
As talk about Jeffords intensified Tuesday, the White House tried to reach out to Miller. Two senior White House officials said there was a flurry of action Tuesday night to open negotiations with the Georgia lawmaker, but the officials said the talks had all but stopped early Wednesday after the White House received word from Capitol Hill that Miller was remaining a Democrat.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer would not confirm any recruitment effort, but acknowledged the White House believes Miller will remain a Democrat. "Senator Miller, I think, has laid that issue to rest," he said.
Still, Miller made it clear he won't march in lockstep with Democratic leadership.
"I said the day I came to the Senate that, `I will serve no single party, but rather 7.5 million Georgians.' This is exactly what I've done everyday since and what that is exactly what I will continue to do -- regardless of the makeup or the leadership of the Senate," he said.