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King brings unorthodox flair to a bipartisan mission in the Senate

If it hadn't been for his staff, Maine Sen. Angus King (I) might have recently become the first lawmaker to showcase a Veg-O-Matic on the Senate floor.

Alas, he had to settle for using the food processor as a verbal metaphor and not a visual one.

"I wanted to take it on the floor and show what it did, but they wouldn't let me," King joked in an interview with E&E Daily last week.

King was referring to his first Senate floor speech, in which he urged his colleagues to conceive of a new age of compromise between political parties. His 23-minute monologue was peppered with quotes from President Lincoln and anecdotes from the 2000 election, as well a reference to the unassuming Veg-O-Matic.

"I think the best analogy for the United States Constitution is the homely Veg-O-Matic," King, 69, said in the late-April speech. "It slices, it dices, it purees. The Constitution is the Veg-O-Matic of power. It slices and dices, it lays it out, it divides it between the people and the government, between the federal government and the states and the localities."

The Maine senator's speech reflected, in part, the mission he has pursued during his first months in the Senate. While King has been focused on budget and military issues, he has also set about trying to improve relationships among his colleagues: starting a former governors meeting group, going to prayer breakfasts and setting up personal visits with his fellow senators.

"It's definitely hard to pull off, and I didn't have any illusions about that," King said. "In my campaign speeches, I always said, 'This is what I want to do, but I don't expect [Majority Leader] Harry Reid and [Minority Leader] Mitch McConnell to put their arms around my shoulders and ask me how to do it.'"

But after four months on Capitol Hill and one-on-one sessions with about 50 of his colleagues, King said he still remains optimistic that the partisan atmosphere can be improved, at least somewhat.

"Here's what I've observed: Institutionally, it's still a very partisan place. In other words, there's separate caucuses, separate lunches, a lot of bills are on party-line votes. But personally, it isn't so partisan," King said.

"There are a lot of cross-party-line friendships, conversations, work together, and there is more bipartisanship than people think. It's the high-profile issues that are generally partisan -- the budget, gun control -- but everyday things go on with unanimous consent, which are by definition bipartisan. We confirmed a bunch of the president's Cabinet appointments. We've confirmed a bunch of judges. We're working on legislation right now involving sales tax on Internet sales that is almost totally bipartisan," he added.

'I had to join one or the other'

But King -- although elected an independent with 53 percent of the vote in a six-candidate field last year -- isn't above the political fray himself.

He opted to caucus with the Democrats, which most political observers had expected him to do after the party failed to field a top-tier candidate in the contest to succeed former Sen. Olympia Snowe (R).

King acknowledged that he has received both positive and negative feedback on his decision, suggesting he agreed with one constituent who told him he wished he could have opted out of the caucuses altogether.

"It would have been sort of fun, but it would be a stunt and it wouldn't be fair to Maine," King said. "I had to join one or the other. Basically, I determined that I couldn't stay on the side and put myself out of the committee process, which is where the work gets done."

Instead, King said he opted for the Democrats, asserting that the party's majority status gave him more influence in the legislative process and assured him "substantial independence."

"The proof is in the pudding: I got very good committee assignments, particularly for Maine," King said, pointing to his seats on the Armed Services, Budget, Rules and Administration, and Intelligence panels.

Meanwhile, a recent National Journal survey showed King's voting record in the first 100 days of the 113th Congress puts him solidly in line with Democratic leadership, agreeing on 90 percent of votes.

But King, who said he is more likely to face scrutiny over his voting record than lawmakers who ran on a Democratic or Republican ticket, argued that his voting record is unlikely to stay so lopsided.

"I think people are going to continue to look for evidence ?- 'Which way is he leaning?'" King said. "On the issues we've had thus far, I've certainly voted more with the Democrats because I've agreed with them. I suspect there will be issues coming up where I won't agree."

King said he suspects that he will align with Republicans, particularly on "some issues regarding regulation," but noted that those issues have yet to reach the floor.

At a recent breakfast for Maine residents, a weekly meet-and-greet session sponsored by King's office and catered with blueberry muffins made by his staff, constituents were on hand to urge the senator's action on a variety of issues, from education to funding for Alzheimer's research.

Among a half-dozen attendees, none expressed surprise at King's decision to caucus with Democrats, including Hollis Center, Maine, resident Cathy Walters, a Republican who said she had voted for King.

"Having those leanings doesn't surprise me," said Walters, noting that she recalled King from his days as a part-time host of the public television public affairs show "Maine Watch." "I still admire him. He's for all of us."

Walters, who was dressed in purple to help promote the Alzheimer's Association, said of her decision to vote for King: "I think the Senate is the real deal, and you have to be a really smart person to be in the Senate."

King said he has an amicable relationship with the state's senior senator, Republican Susan Collins.

"It's really good, and that's not always the case," King said. "It's quite often when there's senators, there's competition and tension, but I think we've done a really good job of getting over that. We communicate on a regular basis. During the all-night budget session, I went over and we sat together on the floor for probably 45 minutes to an hour and talked about a whole lot of different things."

The relationship could be starkly different: King defeated Collins in his first bid for governor in 1994, facing off with the Republican and former Gov. Joseph Brennan (D) in that contest. Collins went on to win her Senate seat in 1996, and King won a second term in 1998.

More recently, while waiting for a microphone malfunction to be fixed so the pair could make remarks at a Taste of Maine event in the Russell Senate Office Building, the senators appeared friendly, even partaking in a shot of vodka together -- distilled in Maine, of course.

"My estimation of her has only grown since I've been down there" in Washington, King told E&E Daily. "She's really a good senator. That doesn't mean we're going to agree on every single issue; in fact, we've disagreed on some issues. I've been very impressed seeing her from the inside, particularly on the Intelligence Committee."

'I've been trying to get my feet on the ground'

Before he entered politics in the 1990s, King made his personal fortune -- which allowed him to fund nearly half of his first bid for the governor's office -- in energy conservation (E&E Daily, March 16, 2012). More recently, he turned his attention to establishing wind farms in Maine, although he divested his interests ahead of last year's election.

Given his 30 years in various energy-related fields as well as major interest in land conservation during his gubernatorial tenure, King said he is disappointed not to be on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, but he said, "You're somewhat circumscribed in terms of your committee assignments."

Nonetheless, King remains engaged in conservation and energy in the Pine Tree State, talking enthusiastically about a project at the University of Maine and Maine Technical College to generate power from biomass pellets: "I'm really excited about these kinds of opportunities."

It's unlikely, given his committee assignments, that King's first proposed bill will focus on those issues.

Although he has co-sponsored more than four dozen pieces of legislation, King said he is still working toward his first sponsored bill.

King said several proposals that are currently in the drafting process include measures that would address the expansion of rural broadband services, "a majority regulatory reform proposal," and presidential authority over the use of drones.

"There are a number of areas where we're working on drafting and putting legislation together. But also, in the process, I've been trying to get my feet on the ground and see how to make things happen," King said.

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