PORTLAND, Maine — Sen. Angus King told a Portland business group Wednesday he thinks what Congress does best is put off difficult problems, so he’s started seeking out a solution to partisan gridlock less than a mile away from Capitol Hill.
“Every two or three weeks, I have a little dinner with four or five senators, and the dinner consists of me stopping on the way home. I call Peaches at Kenny’s Smoke House and get two racks of ribs and two orders of coleslaw,” King said.
King said the guests that have attended dozens of such rib dinners at a home he and his wife, Mary Herman, bought near Capitol Hill have run the political gamut from Texas Republican Ted Cruz to New York Democrat Chuck Schumer.
The resemblance to the preferred dining spot or catering plans of the fictional presidential aspirant Francis Underwood, in the show Netflix show “House of Cards,” he said, is purely coincidental.
But the conversations are real, he said, in an otherwise cautious Capitol where he said the big problems such as immigration and highway funding can be “poison politically.”
“Everyone on the [Senate] floor says we’ve got to increase the gas tax, but nobody will say it publicly,” King told an audience assembled Wednesday morning by the regional business lobbying group, The New England Council, at The Bank of Maine in Portland.
King urged the audience to support lawmakers in advocating perhaps politically unpopular positions, such as raising the gas tax for the first time since 1993.
“This is a real problem for this country,” King said. “Infrastructure is one of the most basic functions of government, and we’re not going to be able to fix the roads with pixie dust.”
King said he did not want to overstate the effect of the intimate senatorial dinners at his D.C. home, but some senators rarely meet those across the aisle unless they’re at a weekly prayer breakfast.
“At the first couple of dinners, I realized there was a lot of hilarity, and it’s because we live such high-pressure lives: everything you say is being recorded and anything you say could end your career,” King said.
Still, he said the conception of Congress as an unending logjam is not entirely correct, as Congress has passed a rewrite of Veterans Affairs laws, job training laws and other legislation he counts in the category of important but not hot-button topics.
It’s major issues such as immigration, domestic spying and budgets that stall Congress, which King attributed to influence from outside political spending that prevents meaningful discussion of potentially controversial issues such as the gas tax and sagging infrastructure from unfolding on the Senate floor.
“There would be [a] 30-second ad that ‘King went to Washington to raise your taxes,’ and a funny picture with a crown on it,” King said, referring to a television ad aired by a national group opposed to his 2012 campaign for the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Olympia Snowe.
For that reason, King said he puts the chance of movement on immigration reform at about zero. But he’s still hopeful compromise can be worked out on issues such as domestic surveillance, an issue the Senate will handle in a deadline vote Sunday, as provisions in the Patriot Act allowing the NSA’s bulk collection of phone records, but not call content, is set to expire.
“One of the problems is that we waited too long to address this, and it should have been done several months ago,” King said.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, supported extending the data collection methods permitted by the 2001 Patriot Act, but Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, filibustered the extension.
“We’re trying to negotiate with him and find a path through that’s protective of national security and respectful of privacy,” King said. “It’s a tough balance and one that’s never really struck.”
King said he supports the ability for the government to have a quick way to check phone contacts of a suspected terrorist, but that he’s wary of the government holding those records.
The USA Freedom Act proposed by President Barack Obama and passed by the House calls for phone companies to hold those records in a place where government officials could then query specific numbers.