By Rhiannon Pabich
BU News Service
WASHINGTON—Ending months of speculation, Maine Senate-elect Angus King announced Wednesday that he would caucus with the Democrats, allowing the party to increase its Senate majority by two seats when the 113th Congress convenes in January.
King, who entered the race to succeed retiring Republican Senator Olympia Snowe by decrying the current gridlock on Capitol Hill, had run as an independent, while refusing to say throughout the campaign with which party he would caucus if elected.
But, speaking Wednesday morning from a podium in the historic Ohio Clock Corridor adjacent to the U.S. Senate chamber, King declared: “I have decided to affiliate myself with the Democratic Caucus, because doing so will allow me to take independent positions on issues as they arise, and at the same time will allow me to be an effective representative for the people of Maine.”
King, who served as Maine’s independent governor from 1995 to 2003, said that in making his decision he “wanted to maintain [his] independence as long and as thoroughly as possible.”
He said that his decision came after meeting with “a dozen senators from both parties in the past three days,” including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. He also met with former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, D-Maine, who for 14 years held the Senate seat that King will now occupy. King said he “came away from this conversation reassured that [his] independence would be respected” by the Democrats.
But King’s decision, while not confirmed until Wednesday, not did not come as a surprise to many in Washington: While he endorsed Republican George W. Bush for president in 2000, he had backed the Democratic presidential nominee, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, in 2004, and endorsed President Obama in both 2008 and 2012.
Suspecting that he would likely land with the Democrats, national Republicans and allied groups poured millions of dollars into the Maine Senate race this fall to weaken King and bolster the Republican nominee, Maine Secretary of State Charlie Summers. But King won handily on Election Day, capturing 53 percent of the vote to 31 percent for Summers and just over 13 percent for the official Democratic candidate, state Sen. Cynthia Dill.
With King’s announcement, there will be 55 members of the Senate Democratic Caucus in the new Congress, including two independents, King and Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont. That’s a net gain of two from the 53 seats the Democrats control in the current 112th Congress. Besides Maine, Democrats picked up seats in Massachusetts with the victory of Senate-elect Elizabeth Warren over Scott Brown and in Indiana. Offsetting that was the loss of a Democratic held seat in Nebraska on Election Day.
But the balance could change soon if Kerry is nominated and confirmed for a position in the Obama Cabinet, triggering a special election in which Brown is a potential candidate.
Immediately after announcing his new affiliation, King was careful to emphasize his bipartisan approach. “By associating myself with one side I am not in automatic opposition to the other,” he said twice, enunciating each word.
He added, “The challenges are too great and the stakes are too high to allow partisanship to keep us from finding common ground on even the most difficult issues. I hope that in a small way, I may be able to act as a bridge between the parties.”
When asked about his hope of obtaining a seat on the prestigious Senate Finance Committee, King replied, “As my father used to say, ‘if you don’t ask you don’t get.’ The Finance Committee is certainly a very important committee over the next several years because of the possibility of comprehensive tax reform as part of the debt solution, and I did raise that with Senator Reid.”
Reid’s response? “He pointed out to me that it took Senator Kerry 14 years to sit on the Finance Committee,” King noted, laughing. He added that “there were no promises made” regarding his committee assignments.
King said he walked away from meetings with various legislators “impressed by their seriousness of purpose. I am truly humbled and honored to be among them, and look forward to working with each of them in the months and years to come as we struggle to fulfill the fundamental promises of the Constitution.”
One of King’s many meetings was with his predecessor, Snowe, a three-term Republican known for her tendency to reach across the aisle on issues such as abortion rights. As she approaches retirement from Congress, Snowe said earlier this week that she believes King’s “bipartisan approach is right on target and is what is required for the people of Maine.”