It was no surprise on Wednesday that U.S. Sen.-elect Angus King announced he will caucus with Democrats. The independent former governor confirmed what many expected: that he would not align with increasingly conservative Republicans and would instead join the majority party, which has more control over committee positions and bill schedules.
In making his announcement, King emphasized that teaming up with Democrats will still allow him to maintain independent positions. “By associating myself with one side, I am not in automatic opposition to the other,” he wrote in a statement about his decision. But only when we see how, exactly, he will lean conservative will we know the route to bridging the divide between the parties, getting legislation passed and improving Senate procedures.
The Democratic Party benefits by having King in its caucus because of his potential links to the minority party. If King can gain favor by siding with Republicans on certain issues, he may be more successful later in drawing the parties together on certain proposals. The difficulty will be in specifying those areas for compromise. Don’t expect to see him agree with Republicans on social issues. Do look for him to seek common ground on budget issues, taxation and regulation.
Perhaps he would side with Republicans to support a carve-out exemption for small business owners during negotiations about tax increases on high-income earners. Perhaps he would agree to an economic plan that includes limiting the value of itemized deductions. These are areas of common ground to consider.
But more than bills, it’s possible King could become an influential rule reformer. Though perhaps not glamorous, focusing on senatorial process is key, as the Senate is often paralyzed by rules of order. It would be natural for him to join a group of like-minded senators and focus on changes to the filibuster. He might also work on rule changes to a tactic known as a hold that allows one or more senators to stop a bill or other measure from reaching the floor for consideration, if the floor leader agrees. When a senator gives notice of a hold ahead of time, he or she is able to remain anonymous.
Another area that needs improvement: the confirmation process of presidential appointments of federal judges. It only takes one senator to filibuster an appointee, forcing the majority party to get 60 votes to overcome the filibuster and continue with a vote. Republicans have blocked Obama nominees, causing the average confirmation time for uncontroversial circuit court nominees to rise to 227.3 days, according to the Congressional Research Service. Under President Ronald Reagan, the average was 64.5 days.
King certainly can’t move the Senate toward functionality himself, so his success will depend on connections with other senators who have the potential to work together and come to the center, such as Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine; Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla.; Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.; or Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. Small bipartisan groups in the Senate have historically had difficulty making substantial changes, but there are times they have worked, too.
Being independent in the Senate may prove more difficult than serving as an independent governor, when King could appoint Republican commissioners and more easily separate himself from a partisan agenda. In the Senate, he may have less flexibility; votes are yea or nay. And he may feel a pull to reward the Democrats who supported him this election. His challenge, then, will be to plot a deliberate path toward independence, whether through legislation or altering Senate procedure, and find specific ways in which to agree with Republicans or help draw both sides toward compromise. It could be the task of a lifetime.