BRUNSWICK, Maine — Thirty down, 69 to go. Angus King has his work cut out for him.
As you might expect, since his election to the U.S. Senate in November, King has been a busy guy.
On Tuesday, the former two-term, independent governor of Maine was counting up the number of other U.S. senators he has been able to meet with one on one in Washington since being elected.
The political independent has managed to meet with 30 so far: 11 Republicans and 19 Democrats.
Those meetings were not geared toward specific issues. They were mostly attempts to build relationships, King said.
“I had a little trepidation going down,” he said. “I remember thinking, ‘How am I going to be received? Am I going to be treated like a rank outsider, as an interloper, as an enemy?’”
King said he was pleasantly surprised to be “received very warmly” by his soon-to-be peers in what has been dubbed ” the World’s greatest deliberative body.”
“Now, I haven’t had to cast any votes yet, or any of those kinds of things,” King said, “but it was very positive.
“The image of the Senate as full of sort of posturing, pompous guys with long white hair and suits is sort of gone,” King said. “These are regular people from all over the country. Nobody was the least bit pompous or arrogant or dismissive. All had advice, all had good thoughts, all said, ‘We are glad to have you here.’”
King has decided to caucus with Democrats, but he’s still an independent, he said, and one of his key efforts for his first year in office will be to find ways to break down the long-standing partisan gridlock that has paralyzed the U.S. Senate.
To that end, King asked to be appointed to the Senate Rules Committee, which literally makes the rules for how the U.S. Senate will function. The rest of the Senate has to vote to approve those rules, but King said he believes people are determined to end the gridlock.
King is already engaging other senators on the topic of filibuster reform in hopes of ending the process by which bills and even amendments to bills are kept from votes by extended debate.
It has long been a stalling (or obstructionist) practice in the U.S. Senate. A filibuster can only be ended when 60 of the 100 senators agree to “invoke cloture,” which means ending the debate and voting on the bill. In a closely divided Senate, that’s been a problem, King said. In the past five years, the filibuster tactic has been used nearly 400 times.
King, like his predecessor Snowe, said he would take a conservative approach to changing the long-standing rules under which the Senate operates, but he would vote, if necessary, to adopt a new rule allowing a 51-vote majority to end debate.
“I think the filibuster is an important protection for the minority, but it should be used sparingly and it should not be used as a routine part of the legislative process,” King said. He said the rules must be fair, and while Republicans, currently in the minority, are opposed to a simple majority ‘cloture’ vote, he believes this change would be fair and he would support it regardless of which party retains the majority.
“Where we are now is not acceptable,” he said, adding that “386 filibusters in the last five years is not the way the U.S. Senate was designed to work.” King said he hopes the Senate works something out so this practice doesn’t continue to be abused. To a great extent, he sees it as his primary reason for going to Washington. The issue was a key refrain from voters who supported him.
“I’m prepared to vote for a change, because the public demands it,” King said. “This is what the people of Maine sent me down there for. Everything I heard in the campaign was, ‘Go down there and get something done.’ So to me, a 51-vote rule change is the worst option, except the status quo.”
King said that as a member of the Rules Committee, he also will be positioned to work on campaign finance reform.
King has been an outspoken opponent to undisclosed outside spending in U.S. election campaigns, a tactic used heavily against him in his bid for the Senate. King has said repeatedly the public should have the right to know who is financing attack and support ads, even if those ads are not officially sanctioned or commissioned by a campaign. Snowe also supported full disclosure.
The former governor will serve on four committees: Rules, Armed Services, Budget and Intelligence.
As a member of the Armed Services Committee he will be positioned to advocate for the state’s largest employer, Bath Iron Works. But he said because of the reshaping of the U.S. military’s posture to be better equipped to have a greater presence in Asia and the Pacific, advocacy for shipbuilders isn’t necessarily a parochial stance.
“I’m lucky in that I don’t have to be pounding the table about something that may be questionable, strategically,” King said. “It’s going to require ships and there are only two places that build them.”
He also said cuts in U.S. defense spending within the next decade are almost a given.
“One of the realities of the next 10 years is going to be, ‘How do we reduce defense budget and not reduce defense?’” he asked. “How do we control this very large share of the budget and provide the defense the country needs?”
That work will overlap the Armed Services and Budget committees, he said.
King said he has met with Snowe and plans to meet with her again in hopes of learning which issues she’s still working on and would like him to continue.
“We don’t want things to lapse,” King said. “She and I are very similar on our view of issues and things.”
One of those issues is getting the Senate to vote on confirming U.S. federal court justices, including at least one from New England that’s been left in limbo, he said.
King said he has an optimistic outlook as he heads to Washington in January to be sworn in. Earlier this week he announced that Kay Rand would be his chief of staff. Rand has a long history of working for King and has been among his top advisers for decades. He said details on the rest of his staff likely would be announced by the week’s end.
He intends to keep open all of Snowe’s offices around the state and he may add one more.
He said following in the footsteps of Snowe and other luminaries from Maine, including Edmund Muskie and George Mitchell, was a daunting proposal. He likened it to batting fifth behind a lineup of Yankee sluggers that included Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio.
“I’m daunted by that, but I’m excited by the opportunity and potential and am not going to be intimidated by that,” King said.