Sen. Nelson rejects switch to GOP, won't become independent

Saying "I'm very comfortable where I am," Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) indicated Tuesday he will not switch to the Republican Party — or become an independent.

Nelson, a centrist who's broken with his party on a number of key issues during this Congress, said he enjoys a great deal of flexibility as a Democrat, which wouldn't be the case if he were to join the GOP.

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"I don't believe so," Nelson said on KLIN radio in Nebraska when asked if he'd become a Republican.

The GOP, Nelson said, "doesn't seem to be" a party with a very large ideological tent.

"Certainly, if you look at the partisan votes recently," he said, "it's been pretty much lockstep, and I'm not one who's comfortable being that way."

Nelson has arguably been the Senate's most conservative Democrat over the past year and a half, having opposed several jobs packages without budget offsets, the Supreme Court nomination of Elena Kagan, and elements of healthcare reform, including the so-called "public option" favored by many in his party's base.

His voting record led some to think he might bolt to the GOP or follow the path of Sen. Joe Lieberman (Conn.), who ran for reelection as an independent in 2006 after having lost a Democratic primary. Lieberman still caucuses with Democrats but sometimes also breaks with his party's leaders.

Nelson rejected such a move, saying he still feels very comfortable within the Senate Democratic Caucus.

"I'll put it this way: I don't think you leave your party, your party leaves you. And my party hasn't left me," he said. "My party gives me a great deal of latitude to do what I think is right on the basis of policy and interests, rather than just what party philosophy seems to be. So I'm very comfortable where I am."

Nelson is up for reelection in 2012, leading to some suggestions that his voting record may be aimed more at protecting his reelection effort than anything else.

"I'm an independent-minded person, so some folks back in Washington have a difficulty in understanding that you can be independent-minded," he said. "Because this is a partisan town, and when you approach things in a bipartisan way, you don't fit into the mold or the category that they have all set for you."