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King could be effective in the Senate without a caucus, former independent senator says

Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Former Maine Gov. Angus King announces his independent candidacy for the U.S. Senate Monday, March 5, 2012, after giving a lecture on leadership at Bowdoin College in Brunswick.
By Scott Thistle, Sun Journal

If anybody knows the meaning of being a party of one, it’s former U.S. Sen. Dean Barkley.

Appointed as an independent to the U.S. Senate in late 2002 by former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, Barkley said being an independent with no party to caucus with didn’t keep him from being an effective lawmaker.

Those saying former Maine Gov. Angus King, who is running as an independent for the seat of retiring Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, would be handicapped by not picking a political party to caucus with don’t know what they’re talking about, Barkley said.

“It’s more of the same B.S.,” he said.

“Being independent gives you an extraordinary amount of power and influence in the Senate, much more so than just falling in line with your caucus mates and being bullied into doing what they want,” he said. “You can do what you want and you can pick and choose the fights you want to get into.”

Barkley, who was appointed after Sen. Paul Wellstone, D- Minn., died in a plane crash, said he quickly became effective.

No rule forces a member of the Senate to caucus with a party and no rule prohibits an independent from being given committee assignments, as some critical of King’s stance have suggested.

“You can set up your own caucus, if there’s one or two of you, set up your own darn caucus,” Barkley said. “Have three caucuses, why do you have to have just two? That’s just a bad habit that should be broken.”

Barkley said in a telephone interview Thursday that he found himself in an “uncannily powerful position.”

He served all of 62 days in the Senate but became an instrumental player, helping to force a Senate vote that led to the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, among other things.

The Senate was split evenly, with 50 Democrats matched by 49 Republicans and Republican Vice President Dick Cheney, who was president of the Senate.

“I was probably the most popular guy on the Hill. I was everybody’s best friend — for about a week,” Barkley said.

Mark Brewer, an associate professor of political science at the University of Maine in Orono, said it is unfair to compare Barkley’s experience to any King might have in the U.S. Senate.

He agreed with Barkley that an independent senator could wield extraordinary power but balked on the issue of caucuses and said he didn’t think King would resist party caucuses if he won the seat.

“If both parties said to him, ‘Look, you either caucus with us or you don’t get any committee assignments,’ which they can do, it would be absurd to pass up committee assignments,” Brewer said.

Lots of work gets done in committees, Brewer said. If King lost committee assignments that would diminish his power in the Senate.

But with a closely divided Senate, King could have clout, Brewer said. His vote would be more of a commodity and more sought after than one from a senator who is a staunch party loyalist.

“His vote, if it’s King, his vote is going to be at a premium,” Brewer said.

King said Friday that he has tried to clarify his position on caucusing and committees and some things he’s said in the past that have been taken out of context by his opponents.

“What I have tried to say consistently is I haven’t made up my mind, which is true,” King said. “It’s not like I have made up my mind and it’s secret. I have not made up my mind. I want to stay as independent as I can, for as long as I can but not do something that would make me ineffective on behalf of Maine.”

If Senate rules require him to caucus with a party to get a committee assignment, then he’ll do it, King said.

To see more from the Sun Journal visit sunjournal.com

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