PORTLAND – Maine’s independent U.S. Sen. Angus King, a member of both the Intelligence and Armed Services committees, has been getting plenty of security intelligence since he took office in January, much of it involving the nuclear capabilities of Iran and North Korea.
But King said his biggest security fear might be a cyberattack.
“Every hearing I’ve been in this spring, the top national security people have said that the next Pearl Harbor is going to be cyber. That’s the most serious and immediate threat we face and it’s happening now,” King said Friday, referring to potential threats on gas pipelines, power grids and banking systems.
In a wide-ranging interview with the editorial board of the Portland Press Herald, Maine’s junior senator and former two-term governor touched on topics that have defined his first three months in office: gun control, budget negotiations, filibuster reform, national security threats and bipartisanship.
King was elected in November with 53 percent of the popular vote in a three-way race. He ran his campaign on the promise that he could be a bridge between Democrats and Republicans in Congress. He acknowledged Friday that there’s much work to do.
“It’s a totally partisan atmosphere, but I’ve found there is more collegiality on a personal level than I expected,” he said. “It’s very partisan, but it’s not poisonous.”
CONGRESS ON RECESS
The Senate is on recess for Easter. When King returns to Washington, Congress will resume some important debates.
On gun control, King has taken a measured approach. As a legislative package moves closer to a vote, King clarified his position.
“I want to do what works,” he said. “The first and most important thing is universal background checks. That’s where the biggest gap is.”
That piece is held up, he said, by disagreement over paperwork. Anti-gun control advocates, led by the National Rifle Association, are wary that if the government has background check paperwork, it will amount to a registry.
He has not supported the proposed ban on assault weapons, a controversial piece that has been stripped from the bill before Congress.
“The guts of an assault rifle is exactly the same as a semi-automatic hunting rifle that thousands of Maine people have in closets,” he said. “It certainly looks more menacing, but I don’t think appearance is a valid basis on which to regulate. I’ve been focused on functionality.”
For instance, he said, limiting the number of bullets in a magazine makes sense. His magic number is 10.
King said one area of bipartisanship on gun control is strengthening trafficking laws.
BUDGET DIVIDES CONGRESS
On the federal budget, King said the Senate budget, supported by Democrats, and the House budget, supported by Republicans, are still far apart.
“The problem is, the budgetary differences go to the core values of the two parties,” he said. “The core value of Republicans is no new revenue. The core for Democrats is no cuts to entitlements. In order to solve the problem, it probably requires both, and therefore neither one wants to move.”
“If people don’t take absolutist positions, there is a deal to be had.”
He said he’s still hopeful about a compromise, which could include some entitlement cuts and using some new revenue toward tax rate reductions.
But King said the current budget debate has overlooked the real problem. He said nondiscretionary spending and defense spending, as a percentage of the gross domestic product, have been flat, while health care as part of the federal budget is now 4 percent of GDP, and projected to jump to 12 percent in 20 years.
“This is the budget problem,” he said. “It’s not expenditures at the EPA or the Department of Commerce. Cutting this spending because we’ve got a budget problem is like invading Brazil after Pearl Harbor. It’s not the right target.”
Changing the way the health care system functions has been a priority in Washington for decades, but King said he believes there is more urgency now because of the expected spike in costs. Still, he said, change won’t be easy. The U.S. spends about twice as much on health care as any other country.
“Right now we pay for procedures,” he said. “We need to pay for health. But I don’t think we should pass a law. I think you do it by having employers take control of their health care costs.”
EAST COAST MISSILE SHIELD NEEDED
On national security, King said North Korea’s recent saber-rattling has made the case for an East Coast missile shield, one that could be based in northern Maine. The collective security threats, he said, keep him awake at night.
“The potential for mischief in our supply chain is serious,” he said. “It’s very worrisome.”
On partisan gridlock, King, who caucuses with Democrats, said Republicans are doing more obstructing at the moment but the same could be said of Democrats for much of President George W. Bush’s two terms.
He said the bigger problem is that the filibuster has made the Senate a “de facto 60-vote body,” so it is difficult to pass any legislation that is even somewhat controversial.
“Everyone talks about fixing the filibuster, but how do you do it?” he said. “Do you change rules by simple majority? Once you let that genie out of the bottle, then everything gets done by simple majority.
“I think the jury is still out about whether it will be used or misused in the coming months.”
Even amid the gridlock and partisan sniping, King said, he’s hopeful for a better government.
“Maybe I’m just a congenital optimist,” he said.
Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at: