King’s First Year In Senate: Truly Independent – Or Democrat In Disguise?
By Shelby Carignan
BU Washington News Service
WASHINGTON – When asked recently what separates him from his Republican and Democratic colleagues in the increasingly polarized U.S. Senate, Sen. Angus King of Maine – one of only two political independents in that body – replied that he’d like to think he’s a little unpredictable.
At first glance, his voting record during his first year on Capitol Hill might suggest otherwise.
Elected a year ago to succeed former Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe, a prominent centrist, King — a former two-term governor — campaigned on a pledge to shake up the system in an effort to ease the partisan gridlock in Washington. But, since opting to caucus with the Senate Democrats shortly after winning a three-way contest, King’s voting record has been largely predictable: Out of 225 votes cast during his first 10 months, King voted with the majority of the Democratic Party 91 percent of the time, according to analysis from a congressional voting database compiled by The Washington Post.
King, who carved out a record as a centrist during his 1994-2002 gubernatorial tenure, argued it’s not him, but rather the political landscape, that has shifted the most over the past two decades.
“I’ve agreed more with the Democrats in part because the Republican Party has moved so far to the right,” King said during an interview in his Senate office. “When I was an independent in Maine 20 years ago as governor, the Republican Party was a different party.”
At the same time, King contended it is unfair to judge his political independence on the basis of his voting record during the first year of a six-year term. On this point, his senior colleague from Maine – Republican Sen. Susan Collins, herself a leading centrist – backs him up.
“While I think his leanings are definitely more toward the Democratic side of the aisle, he has shown independence on some fiscal issues,” Collins said in an interview, while cautioning, “I think it’s hard to judge someone’s ideology based on just the first year. I think a lot of it depends on the issues that happen to come up.”
One veteran outside observer, Colby College government professor Sandy Maisel, echoed this view.
“I think in the Senate, if you only look at voting records, you’re going to always find people are siding much more with one side than the other, and his voting record is clearly much more in line with the Democratic Party,” Maisel acknowledged. “But if you look at who is working behind the scenes trying to find compromise, I think he is much more in that bipartisan school than are most of the Democrats and the Republicans.”
The Senate’s other current independent, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont also caucuses with the Democrats, but is outspokenly liberal. King joins the caucus from the more moderate side of the political spectrum.
King recalled a message from a friend after one his floor speeches. “[The friend] called what we’re doing ‘A Moderate Manifesto.’ That’s sort of what it was,” King said.
Since January, King has strayed from Democratic Party orthodoxy on a handful of key issues. He voted with Republicans against banning assault rifles last spring and supported the Republican-backed student loan deal passed in August. The GOP plan linked loan rates more closely to the financial markets, which a number of King’s Democratic colleagues contended could create larger long-term financial burdens for borrowers.
Collins pointed to negotiations on the student loan measure in particular, in which, she said, King had “fought back against some of the very liberal members of his caucus.”
In what was an unlikely pairing, King and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a potential 2016 presidential aspirant often associated with the tea party, teamed up to win passage of an amendment to require additional independent analysis before the United States considers using drones to target American citizens involved in terrorist activities outside the country. The two serve together on the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Of King, Rubio observed: “In his time that he’s been here he hasn’t come across at all as an overly partisan person. He certainly votes pretty consistently with the Democrats on many issues, but not on all, I think he’s shown that on some issues such as this that he’s willing to find a middle ground between the views of the different parties, and…I think there’s a need for that.”
But it’s nonetheless a long way from King’s days in Augusta, when Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine – who was state Senate majority leader for four of King’s eight years as governor – recalled that King “certainly wasn’t aligned with the Democrats.”
Recalled Pingree: ”I think in those days he truly was sort of in the middle between the Republicans and Democrats. Sometimes he would disagree with the majority in the Senate, and you couldn’t sway him. But… you often could find some sort of place to agree.”
Pingree, too, points to the “extreme amount of change in the Republican Party” as an explanation for the differences between King’s political positioning as governor and as senator, musing that his current voting record could mirror that of a moderate Republican in Maine in the 1990s.
At times, King appears wistful for those days, as he recalled one night during his tenure as governor during budget discussions when “a Republican state senator came down and said, ‘You know, you’re the only real Republican in this building,’ and I took that as a compliment.”
King added, “He was talking about the classic Republican — of being fiscally conservative, and socially moderate, and internationalist, and those kinds of things. I haven’t changed: I’m just where I was. But the party has gone this way, and so I find more common cause with the Democrats at this point.”
Collins and King were opponents in Maine’s 1994 gubernatorial election, but since King’s election last year, they have worked closely on several issues, including efforts to end the two-week shutdown in October. Their so-called Commonsense Coalition of 14 senators included seven Republicans, six Democrats, and King. (The same analysis showing King siding with the Democratic majority 91 percent of the time tabbed Collins as one of two senators least likely to vote in unison with her party: She sided with the GOP majority on votes just 64 percent of the time this year.)
Collins, a leader of the bipartisan coalition, said King’s role in the negotiations that ended the shutdown was “invaluable.” Of their overall relationship during their first year as Senate colleagues, Collins added: “We get along extremely well. Obviously we don’t always agree on the issues, but each of us is respectful of the other’s position. And when it comes to issues affecting Maine, we virtually always work together.”
King said his relationship with Collins has evolved in a “really positive way” over the past year, particularly during their work together to end the shutdown.
Snowe — who chose not to seek a fourth term last year citing frustrations with institutional gridlock — applauded the continuing efforts of her successor and former colleague.
“Maine is fortunate to have two examples of how Congress should function in both Senator Collins and Senator King,” Snowe said in an emailed statement.
The bipartisan coalition that came together during the shutdown negotiations continues to meet, and King hopes the group will instigate bipartisan discussions on other fronts without undermining the leadership of the two parties. In many ways, the group’s mission addresses the same goals King set out to achieve in his campaign for Senate last year. He also noted reports that a similar group has sprung up in the House.
Asked if he hopes this is the beginning of a viral reaction of sorts on Capitol Hill, King responded with a laugh, “Common sense could break out, unrestrained. Yeah, rampant common sense.”