WASHINGTON – Sen. Angus King, who rode Maine voters’ penchant for “independent” politicians to a Senate victory last fall, has amassed a solidly Democratic record during his first seven months in Congress, voting on the same side as party leaders roughly 90 percent of the time.
But King has also split with the Democratic leadership on a handful of key issues. And despite the lopsided vote tally, political observers see the independent former governor carving out a reputation as a willing deal-maker in the Senate’s ever-shrinking “center.”
“It was pretty well understood that he was going to caucus with the Democrats,” said Ross Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University and former top adviser to Democratic and Republican senators. “One of the things that makes King so interesting to me is that, as an independent, he can serve as a sort of bridge between the Democrats and the Republicans.”
A Maine Sunday Telegram analysis of the 200 recorded, or “roll call,” votes in the Senate since January shows that King — an independent who caucuses with the Democrats — had voted the same way as key Democratic party leaders about 90 percent of the time. For the analysis, King’s votes were compared to Assistant Majority Leader and Democratic Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois and New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, a senior lawmaker and vice chairman of the Democratic conference.
King and Durbin voted the same way 177 times out of King’s 197 recorded votes, or 89.8 percent. That percentage has barely budged since the National Journal compared the two senators’ first 95 votes through mid-April. King and Schumer were on the same side for 91.9 percent of the votes analyzed by the Sunday Telegram.
By contrast, King was on the same page as Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Republican Minority Whip John Cornyn of Texas just 35 percent of the time — a fact that political analysts attribute to Republicans’ use of the filibuster and the party’s steady drift toward the right.
The Senate’s other independent, Vermont’s Sen. Bernie Sanders, voted with Durbin 92.4 percent of the time and with Cornyn on just 25 percent of votes. Freshman Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat and unabashed liberal, parted ways with Durbin only 3.6 percent of the time.
“It’s roughly what I would have expected, maybe a little more on the Democratic side,” Jim Melcher, a political scientist at the University of Maine at Farmington, said of King’s voting record. “I think the story here is how much more conservative Senate Republicans have become over the last five or so years.”
During the 2012 campaign, King repeatedly stressed the need to “fix the Senate” as he vowed to bring a less partisan and more compromise-minded style to Washington politics. While it was nearly universally anticipated that King would caucus with the Democrats, he delayed an announcement until after he arrived in Washington. Joining a caucus is key to securing plum committee assignments.
King said the high number of Republican filibusters and White House nominations likely skewed his voting record in the Democrats’ favor. But he also acknowledged that, on many issues, he is simply more in line with Senate Democrats than Republicans.
“I think the most important point is that I vote according to what I think is right and not according to a party position or what somebody tells me,” King said, adding that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has asked for his vote only once and he declined. “At this particular moment in history, I am agreeing more with the Democrats.”
Indeed, timing and the political atmosphere inside the Capitol building likely contributed to King’s one-sided vote tally thus far.
At least 22 of the Senate’s 200 roll call votes were confirmations of White House Cabinet nominees or top positions at agencies like the FBI and the CIA, as senior administration posts turned over with the start of Obama’s second term. A half-dozen of those nominees faced two votes: the first to break a Republican filibuster followed by official confirmation.
Norman Ornstein, a senior fellow and veteran congressional scholar with the American Enterprise Institute, said Republicans have waged “an unprecedented level of filibusters” against White House nominees and judges under Obama.
In total, 29 of the 200 votes were to “invoke cloture,” the procedural mechanism requiring 60 votes to proceed with consideration of a bill and end a filibuster. King, who made filibuster reform a prominent part of his 2012 campaign, voted to move forward with debate 25 of the 29 times.
“In the Senate, it is very difficult to find a center,” Ornstein said. “It is not just polarization, it is tribalization. And in many ways it has become worse because Mitch McConnell and John Cornyn are up for re-election and they are scared to death of challenges from the right.”
For those reasons, Ornstein said he would expect to see King’s votes heavily weighted toward his caucus. That does not affect King’s ability to be a “bridge builder” and work across the aisle, however.
“If you look at what his colleagues are saying about him, he gets very, very high marks,” Ornstein said.
As a former governor, King often says he would give any president wide latitude to choose his own team.
“It just so happens that the current president is a Democrat,” King said. “Democrats all vote for the president’s nominee and so do I. But I don’t vote for him because it is Barack Obama, I vote for him because it’s the president. I suspect if it was George W. Bush or (Sen.) Marco Rubio I would do the same.” Rubio, a conservative Florida Republican, is often mentioned as a potential contender in 2016.
The high number of confirmation votes — 38 in all, including judges — and cloture votes on nominees also helps explain why King’s Republican colleague from Maine, Sen. Susan Collins, often found herself voting opposite her party leadership.
Collins, a moderate Republican who has occasionally criticized her party’s overuse of the filibuster, voted for 32 of the 38 nominees and voted to invoke cloture 24 times out of 29. In fact, Collins voted the same way as the Democratic whip more often than she did with the Republican whip — 68.5 percent compared to 57.4 percent. She and King voted the same way 74 percent of the time.
So where did King differ with most Democrats and their party leaders? Turns out, it was on some of the year’s higher-profile issues debated on the Senate floor — such as gun control.
King voted with the majority of senators to expand background checks on private gun sales, although the push failed after falling short of the 60-vote threshold. But King voted against a proposed ban on assault weapons and was one of 11 members of the Democratic caucus to support a failed Republican amendment to require judicial review before veterans are banned from buying guns.
King was one of two members of the Democratic caucus to support an unsuccessful bid to force the White House to resume public tours and visitors services at national parks or monuments after programs were scaled back due to budget cuts. He also joined one Democrat in a failed Republican amendment to require financial regulators to conduct detailed cost analyses of proposed rules.
His highest-profile split with the majority of Democrats was over student loan interest rates, however.
King voted against both a Democratic bill to extend student loan interest rates and a Republican counterproposal. Instead, King worked with a Democrat and three Republicans to craft a bipartisan bill that restructures the way interest rates are set. Maine’s junior senator was present Friday when Obama signed the bill into law at the White House.
Baker, the Rutgers political scientist, called the student loan deal “one of the few things to come out of the 113th Congress that is worth talking about,” making the freshman senator’s prominent role even more impressive, he said.
King said he fully expects to find himself opposite of his caucus members on other key issues. For instance, King said he is working “primarily with Republicans” on the issue of regulatory reform and has introduced a sweeping reform bill with Missouri Republican Sen. Roy Blunt.
Speaking Friday in his Senate office, King said he was “comfortable” with his voting record but added, “I think differences will emerge.” He also reiterated that his votes to date were just that — his own — and not in response to any pressure from his fellow caucus members.
“On the student loan thing, I fully expected to be reined in at some point, to get a call from some of the Democratic leadership saying, ‘What are you doing?’ ” King said. “And that didn’t happen. That just did not happen. And part of my decision back at the very beginning was Harry Reid’s assurance that it was not going to happen, that he was not going to be telling me what to do.”
Kevin Miller can be contacted at 317-6256 or at: