King may flip to GOP in 2015

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Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), who caucuses with the Democrats, will decide after the midterm elections whether to switch sides and join the Republicans.

He is leaving open the possibility of aligning himself with the GOP if control of the upper chamber changes hands.

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“I’ll make my decision at the time based on what I think is best for Maine,” King told The Hill Wednesday after voting with Republicans to block the Paycheck Fairness Act, a measure at the center for the 2014 Democratic campaign agenda.

King’s remarks are a clear indication that congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle will have to woo the 70-year-old senator in order to recruit him to their side.

That lobbying battle could be especially intense if King’s decision determines which party will control the chamber in the next Congress.

If Republicans pick up six seats this fall, they will be running the Senate in 2015. But a pickup of five would produce a 50-50 split and Democratic control, with Vice President Biden breaking the tie. King could tip the balance.

The former governor of Maine is an independent, but he has generally been a reliable Democratic vote for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

King said after the 2012 elections that being in the majority was important to him, when he announced his decision to caucus with Senate Democrats, giving them control of 55 seats.

“The outcome of last week’s election in some ways makes this decision relatively easy. In the situation where one party has a clear majority and effectiveness is an important criteria, affiliating with the majority makes the most sense,” King said at the time.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) could try to sweeten the prospect of switching caucuses by offering him a slot on the Finance Committee or another plum assignment. The GOP would gain committee seats if it wins the majority, making it easier to hatch a deal.

Democrats, of course, could counter. King now sits on the Armed Services, Budget, Intelligence and Rules committees.

Regardless, King will have leverage in the lame-duck session.

Sen. Roy Blunt (Mo.), the vice chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, contacted King after the 2012 elections to explore whether he would have been willing to caucus with Republicans. That would have given Democrats only a four-seat majority.

Blunt said Wednesday that King might want to reconsider his choice if Republicans regain the majority, as has been predicted by independent political experts.

“Let’s see where we are at the end of this year,” said Blunt. “It may be a whole lot more appealing next year to be on our side.”

King gave Republicans some political cover Wednesday, when he voted with them to block the high-profile pay equity bill. Democratic leaders had pressured Senate Republican centrists for days to vote with them, but ultimately, King was the only lawmaker to break ranks.

Republicans said they were surprised by King’s vote.

A GOP leadership aide said the prospect of King caucusing with the Republican conference next year flashed through his mind after the roll call.

King said the legislation was poorly conceived and would hurt businesses.

“I’m wholly committed to equal pay for equal work, but I just felt this bill had some provisions that would not further the goal and, in fact, would be very burdensome, particularly the provision that, in effect, requires a business to prove a negative,” he said.

The Paycheck Fairness Act calls for employers to prove that pay gaps between male and female workers are not based on gender.

“I just didn’t think this bill was the right answer, and the problem was there wasn’t an alternative version,” he said.

Reid said King alerted him ahead of the vote that he would side with Republicans. The Nevada Democrat said he didn’t try to cajole King.

King has worked increasingly closely with his home-state Republican colleague, Sen. Susan Collins, in recent weeks.

They teamed up last week to press Senate appropriators to boost funding for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program.

He has also signaled willingness to work with Collins on a potential compromise to raise the minimum wage.

They jointly announced this month their support for declassifying a report on the CIA’s detention and interrogation program. Like King, Collins is a member of the Intelligence panel.

“I’ve done a couple of different bills with Sen. King on regulation and other things,” said Blunt. “He’s a bright guy and easy to work with once you’ve found something you agree on.”

After winning election to the upper chamber in 2012, King left open the possibility of one day caucusing with the Republicans if they regained the majority, as long as they promised to respect his independence.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) worked quietly to help him win two years ago. It declined to endorse the Democratic nominee, Cynthia Dill, and, at one point, bought $410,000 in TV airtime aimed at helping King.

Guy Cecil, the DSCC executive director, slammed the Republican candidate, Charlie Summers, as an “anti-choice Tea Partier” who supported eliminating the Department of Education and privatizing Social Security.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee, on the other hand, attacked King with TV ads criticizing his role in a wind turbine project that some Maine residents thought marred the landscape.

Even so, the Senate GOP leadership took a stab at trying to persuade King to join its ranks after the elections.

“I was glad to get a chance to talk to him. He ran as an independent and, as part of our leadership, I didn’t see any reason not to pursue his stated independence and openness to which side he would join,” Blunt said.