By Mario Trujillo - 01/14/13 10:00 AM EST
Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) lacks the one bond that ties nearly all lawmakers to their colleagues — a party.
But the newly elected independent from Maine says current Democrats and Republicans are missing something more fundamental: personal relationships.
“It sounds silly,” King told The Hill. “It sounds frivolous to say where congressmen spend their weekends matters, but I really think it does. And I think it is part of the problem in the current Congress. It is really easy to demonize your opposition if you don’t know them.”
His words hold a degree of timeliness as Vice President Biden’s long relationship in the Senate with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) was seen as central in facilitating the last-minute deal to avert the “fiscal cliff” earlier this month.
“That is the prime example,” King said. “It was that relationship that allowed that thing to happen. My guess is, without Biden, it wouldn’t have happened because [President Obama and Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio)] didn’t have that kind of long-term relationship.
“I have been a senator for four days and I’m here criticizing the president,” he said with a laugh. “But I think you have got to work on those relationships.”
King clarified that he wasn’t criticizing President Obama in particular. Rather, he was making a point about lawmakers’ relationships in general.
A former governor of Maine from 1995 to 2003, King said he went out of his way to court both parties in the Maine legislature. It started with Tuesday breakfasts with the leadership in the governor’s residence. But invitations soon went out to rank-and-file legislators in the state as well.
“No special agenda,” he said. “No big press or anything. They would just all come over to the governor’s residence and we would have breakfast together.”
King puts as much blame on the mechanics of Congress itself as he does on the actors. He said many of the structures and rules that govern Congress have diminished over the years.
A little more than a week into his stay in the Senate and still learning the schedule, King was baffled that Democrats and Republicans have separate weekly policy lunches.
King also said lawmakers spend too much time back in their respective states. Both chambers run on a schedule with long weekends to accommodate lawmakers’ frequent trips home. It became a rallying cry on the campaign trail last year for some incumbents, who touted the frequency with which they returned home in ads.
King supports a three weeks on, one week off schedule — where lawmakers would be in session five days a week and not be so tempted to fly home every weekend. Instead, once a month lawmakers could work in their states for an entire week.
“I don’t want to come off as sounding like it’s not important to be with one’s constituents, but it is the question of effective governing,” he said.
During the campaign King was also a vocal advocate for filibuster reform and was rewarded with a spot on the Senate Rules Committee. He also sits on three other committees — Budget, Armed Services and Intelligence.
On the rules reform, King anticipates a deal. He said he would support the “constitutional option,” which allows the Senate to change the rules with a simple majority on the new Congress’s first day.
“I don’t want to use the constitutional option but will if it is the only option,” he said. “For all the dangers of the constitutional option, doing nothing is more dangerous.”
King enters the Senate as a fiscally conservative, socially liberal lawmaker, hailing from one of the few states where an independent bid for the Senate can be taken seriously.
King said his success in Maine politics was shepherded in part by the election of the first independent governor of the state, James Longley, 20 years earlier.
“He really laid the groundwork for me, not in any policy way [but] because he made it thinkable,” he said. “The hardest part about running as an independent is convincing voters that they are not wasting their vote — that you are not a fringe candidate.”
With the retirement of Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), he is one of only two independents in the Senate. The other is Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
Despite his independence, King will caucus with the Democrats, as does Sanders. King received the bulk of his support during the campaign from Democrats and independents.
According to exit polls, he received 67 percent of the Democratic vote and was backed by 65 percent of independents. He received 22 percent of the Republican vote.
The Democratic Party largely ignored its own candidate in the race, Cynthia Dill, assuming King would caucus with the party if elected.
“I think getting 25 percent of the Republican vote is pretty significant. And when I ran for governor, I always did well among Republicans,” King said.
He decided to caucus with the Democrats because he would have more influence as part of the majority and Democratic Senate leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) assured him he would not be beholden to party-line votes.
If the majority changes in two years, King said he would consider switching over and caucusing with the Republicans. It would depend upon how he is treated in the Democratic Caucus and whether GOP leaders could also guarantee his independence.
“If they would make a similar commitment that they didn’t expect total loyalty, I’d consider it,” he said. But, he added, such considerations are purely hypothetical at this point.