Shortly after being sworn into office on January 3, Senator Angus King had already begun making the political rounds in Washington, meeting with at least 30 of his new colleagues on Capitol Hill and appearing on NBC’s “Meet the Press” opposite Newt Gingrich.
Since winning the Senate seat in November, King and his team have been busy setting up the Senator’s Maine and Washington offices, reviewing hundreds of applications for only 35 positions.
“We were more selective than Stanford or Bowdoin,” King said.
King and Bernie Sanders of Vermont are the only Independents in the Senate, though both caucus with the Democrats. King is also one of 11 former governors currently serving in the Senate. He said he is considering starting an official caucus of former governors, because the experience of holding executive power at the state level is so different from holding a congressional position.
Governors, King said, “are much more used to working in a bipartisan way, and they’re also used to things getting done.”
King said he shared the idea of a potential former governor’s caucus with someone in Washington, who said, “it could also be called the extremely frustrated caucus.’”
“The governor has the opportunity to set the agenda and pick out particular priorities,” King said. “In Congress, you’re one of 535 [legislators]. It’s a different dynamic. I’m frustrated already… The framers designed the system to be slow and cumbersome and they succeeded beyond their wildest expectations.”
King announced his candidacy to replace retiring Senator Olympia Snowe last spring, when he was teaching his popular Leaders and Leadership lecture course. King began teaching as a distinguished lecturer at the College in 2004, after completing his term as governor. Now that he has once more taken public office, the course is no longer offered.
“I wanted to try to think systematically about leadership as opposed to just doing it,” King said. “Over the years of teaching the course, it allowed me to focus on principles…all of which have helped me think through what I’m doing now.”
King said he finds lessons he learned from Winston Churchill to be particularly relevant to his day-to-day life as a senator.
“I teach a whole section of Churchill on how to do brief memos,” King said. “Brevity and the principle of getting straight advice from your staff… All of those things are part of what I learned and what I’m now applying.”
King sits on the Armed Services, Select Intelligence, Budget, and Rules Committees, the last of which reflects his stated intention to reform the filibuster, which has come up in most of his conversations with fellow senators—Democrats and Republicans alike.
“Both sides were open and honest about what their goals were,” King said. Right now, opinion of the filibuster “divides itself by seniority. There’s a group of mostly younger Democratic senators who have had it with the filibuster.”
Conversely, Republicans favor the filibuster in its current form because “they view it as their opportunity to control” Senate proceedings, King said, adding that senior Democrats warn against making a change that will haunt them when they’re back in the minority.
“I come down on the side that we’ve got to do something,” King said. “The Senate isn’t functioning the way it used to as recently as five or six years ago.”
However, even King isn’t totally confident that change will come: “It’s not easy. I give it 50-50 that something’s going to happen,” he said.
On Tuesday, King and Senators Tom Udall (D-NM), Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Jeff Merkley (D-OR) introduced a proposal to support filibuster reform, which includes eliminating the filibuster on motions to proceed. (Currently, the filibuster can be used by a minority of senators to block standard administrative happenings in the Senate.)
King is also frustrated by the current legislative battles in the Senate, especially the refusal of congressional Republicans to increase the debt ceiling.
“They ought to just do it,” he said. “It shouldn’t be controversial. It shouldn’t be used as a political weapon.”
King explained that raising the debt ceiling — a routine legislative procedure — is “backward looking; it allows us to borrow money we’ve already spent.”
True to his independent affiliation, King has dissented from the Democratic agenda as well. In an interview with the Associated Press last week, he said that he does not yet know whether or not he will support President Obama’s proposed assault weapons ban.
King’s steadfast identification as an Independent hasn’t been a problem in Washington—at least not yet.
“So far, the reception and respect and seriousness with which I’ve been accorded have been better than I would have hoped,” he said. “I’ve been taken seriously by the leadership… It’s been very cordial.”
But, he added, “whether that will translate into effectiveness remains to be seen.”