When Maine’s Angus King ran as an independent candidate for the Senate last year, he carefully guarded which party he would caucus with in Washington and how he would vote. “They’ll know the answer when they get to the K’s,” King said of roll-call votes.
The answer is: with the D’s.
In his first 100 days casting votes, the independent senator from Maine has voted with the Democratic leadership about 90 percent of the time, the same rate of allegiance as the former chairman of the Democratic Party, fellow freshman Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, according to a National Journal analysis of voting records.
That King, a former governor, is more Democrat than Republican comes as no surprise. He endorsed President Obama. Republicans aired ads against him. And it was an open secret that he would eventually caucus with the Democrats. Still, his early voting patterns are more akin to a party-line Democrat than a free-agent independent. “Am I aligned with Paul Ryan and Ted Cruz? No, I’m not. I’m just not,” King tells NJ in an interview. “I really think part of the reason I’m landing more on the side of the Democrats these days is that the Republicans have moved to the right.”
Of the first 95 Senate floor votes this Congress, King parted ways with the Democratic leadership only nine times, including two absences caused by a snowstorm. A dozen Democrats (including all five running for reelection in states that Republican Mitt Romney carried last year) split with the leadership more often. Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat and one of the party’s most conservative members, voted differently than Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, the No. 2 Senate Democrat, a total of 30 times—more than three times as often as King. (For this analysis, NJ used Durbin as the best marker of the leadership’s position because Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid occasionally switches his vote for procedural reasons.)
Sen. Debbie Stabenow, a Michigan Democrat and a member of the leadership, says King is “an independent thinker” and “no one takes his vote for granted.” But Democrats have hardly had to twist his arm. King says Reid has explicitly asked for his vote just once, on an amendment that ultimately never came to the floor. (King says he told Reid no.)
Even without leadership pressure, King voted to defeat a filibuster of Chuck Hagel’s nomination as Defense secretary, to begin debate on gun-control legislation, and to pass the Democrats’ budget in a razor-close 50-49 tally. “If I had been them and I knew it was going to be 50-49, I might have checked, but they made that assumption,” King says of his vote for the budget, which he had previously supported in committee. The spending plan included hundreds of billions in new taxes—enough to scare away some moderate Democrats, but not King.
It’s exactly the kind of record the National Republican Senatorial Committee predicted last year when it said King would reside in Reid’s “back pocket.” But GOP senators are giving King a public pass—for now. “The campaign was a campaign, and now we’re trying to govern,” says Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the former NRSC chairman. “I’m still hopeful that he’ll occasionally see fit to cast a contrary vote in order to demonstrate his independence.”
Even as King has voted solidly Democratic, his tone and approach remain centrist. He’s scheduled one-on-one meetings with senators of both parties (about 50 so far, he says). His office is staffed by a blend of former GOP and Democratic aides—a rarity on Capitol Hill. And recently he organized a bipartisan dinner of senators who are former governors. King says he hopes to “serve as a little bit of a bridge” between the two parties. “He seems like somebody who wants to get things done here, which is, in and of itself, a refreshing view,” says Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.
Still, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, chuckled when asked about King’s independent credentials. “I think that’s not for me to judge,” she says, settling on a safe answer. “I can tell you that he’s been very good to work with on issues related to Maine, and I think I’ll just leave it at that.” The real test of his independence, says Collins—herself a party maverick—will come during this summer’s fiscal fights, if and when the Senate tackles changes to Medicare and Social Security reform, an issue that is anathema to Democrats.
King says his fledgling voting record is explained partly by circumstance. For example, he says he plans to confirm most presidential nominees, except in very rare cases, which has him currently casting votes with Senate Democrats for Obama nominees. Other legislative areas, such as government regulations, where he strays further from the Democratic line, have not been prominent on the floor yet, he notes. “If you come back and we talk again in a year or so, I’m guessing, depending upon what issues come to the floor, that you’ll see a more evenly balanced [record],” King says.
He points to one GOP budget-amendment vote in which he sided with Republicans to require cost-benefit analyses on all new proposed rules, as an example of his concern about job-strangling regulations. Another rare split from Democrats came when he supported an amendment to push the White House to renew public tours. But for the most part, King’s conscience votes have lined up neatly with the Democratic agenda. Or, as he puts it, “They’re aligning with me.”
Scott Bland contributed contributed to this article.