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ORTON QUITE HAPPY AS A DEMO MODERATE

Rep. Billy Tauzin of Louisiana this week became the fifth Democrat in Congress this year to switch parties. Rep. Bill Orton, D-Utah, swears he will not be the sixth.

Despite that vow, Orton is still often mentioned in the national press and at home as a potential party switcher.That's because he comes from Utah's very conservative 3rd District - which some people joke contains no Democrat at all when Orton is in Washington. Orton is also a leader of The Coalition - a group of a couple of dozen moderate and conservative House Democrats.

Orton says everyone should stop talking about him switching parties, because it won't happen. And he says he likes his position as a moderate-to-conservative Democrat more and more.

"I'm very comfortable where I am," Orton said in an interview. "The middle is a good place to be."

And Orton is near the middle of the political spectrum in Congress - to the right of liberals in his own party, and to the left of Republicans, most of whom are conservatives (and, of course, they outnumber everyone else in Congress now).

Orton sees a possible political train wreck coming between those Republicans and Democratic President Clinton - which could give moderates in both parties power as they try to broker compromises.

"You have basically three possibilities. One is that Republicans in Congress cave in and do what President Clinton wants. That isn't going to happen," he said.

"Another is that the president will cave in and do everything that Republicans want. That isn't going to happen, either."

He said, "The other possibility is that they somehow meet somewhere in the middle, where we are trying to bring them."

Orton said Clinton has been holding meetings with The Coalition, listening to its suggestions and seeking ways to accommodate both it and liberals in the party.

"The Democratic Party is actually many parties. It always has been. That's its strength," Orton said. He added that if it listens to all its factions and finds solutions that please them, the resulting policy will be about in the middle of what Americans want.

Meanwhile, he says Republicans are much more homogenous - making about the same amount of money, holding similar views on most issues and "even almost looking alike up here."

He believes that is bringing policy more radical and further to the right than most Americans want. He thinks that may make voters reject them soon and turn to Democrats - but more conservative Democrats.

Orton says the trick is to get factions of the Democratic Party to work together to forge a more centrist policy and not to let liberals have too much power.

Of course, the five moderate Democrats who switched parties this year essentially gave up all hope that could happen - and said life had become too miserable for them as they were pushed to support an increasingly liberal agenda.

Those former Democrats included Sens. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., and Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo., and Reps. Tauzin, Nathan Deal, R-Ga., and Greg Laughlin, R-Texas (whose office is next door to Orton's).

Orton said most Democrats figure that group - and Rep. Mike Parker, D-Miss., who hasn't switched parties yet but may soon - had pretty much decided to switch parties after the election anyway.

He said other moderates truly seeking to move the party more to the center have not been punished by House leaders, nor has their life been made difficult.

"It really is a comfortable place. I like it a lot," Orton said. And he again swears that he has no intention to leave it - or the Democratic Party.