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Maine’s Incoming Independent Senator Angus King on Caucusing With the Dems

November 19, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Angus King is one of two Independents in the incoming U.S. Senate, after winning a seat in Maine held for 18 years by retiring Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe. King is expected to caucus with senate Democrats. Jeffrey Brown spoke to the senator-elect after his election win.
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TRANSCRIPT

JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight, the first of several conversations with newly elected senators from both parties.

We begin with Angus King from Maine. The 68-year-old former governor also was a wind power company executive. He won the seat held by retiring Republican Senator Olympia Snowe with 53 percent of the vote.

The independent King kept voters guessing which party he’d caucus with. He made up his mind last week, the day before I spoke with him.

Senator-elect, welcome and congratulations. You ran as an independent. Now you have announced that you will caucus with the Democrats.

So, why not remain independent, and why the Democrats?

SEN.-ELECT ANGUS KING, I-Maine: Well, the first preference was — and I always said during the campaign I wanted to remain as independent as I could be as long as I could be.

But it was always subject to being effective on behalf of Maine. I’m not doing this as a stunt.

And as I looked at the Senate rules and the Senate precedents and talked to people down here who have a lot of experience, trying to go it alone without affiliation with either caucus, I think, really would be almost impossible, particularly in the sense that it would largely exclude me from the committee process.

And that’s where the day-to-day work gets done.

Now, the same answer really applies in terms of why the Democrats. Number one, they’re in the majority. They have more seats on the committee. They have more control over the schedule. They have more involvement in how the Senate day to day is going to work.

But, secondly, I did some inquiring. And the first people I called were Bernie Sanders and Joe Lieberman, who had served as independents aligned with the Democratic Caucus to ask them, how does it work? Were you allowed to be independent, or was there a kind of heavy party discipline? They both said, no, they could be independent. They were not pressured. And that sounded good.

And then I had a lengthy conversation earlier this week with Harry Reid and essentially asked him the same question. Can I maintain my independence, and yet be in the Democratic Caucus and have the benefit of committee assignments and working in that way? He said yes. And so that’s how I made that decision.

JEFFREY BROWN: You know, you said in making that decision that you wanted to serve in some fashion as a bridge between parties.

And I note that you’re — you’re taking now the seat of Olympia Snowe. We talked to her when she announced that she wouldn’t run for reelection.

And part of it was she was citing that what she called the dysfunction in Congress and the Senate, the sense that nobody was open to compromise.

So, how do you plan to do that? How do you see yourself as bridging that problem?

ANGUS KING: Well, as a matter of fact, the reason that she stated for her leaving was exactly the reason I decided to run. I had no intention of getting back into politics. I was teaching at Bowdoin and happily retired from politics.

But when she said that, I said to myself, maybe we have got to try something different. And I’m in a position to do that, being an independent.

I made very clear in my statement yesterday in announcing that I was going to caucus with the Democrats that taking one side didn’t mean automatic opposition to the other. And I believe that.

And, in fact, when I was an independent governor, I worked with both sides. I sometimes fought with both sides. And we managed to find solutions to our state’s problems.

And I think that’s the role that I want to play now. And I want to keep the lines of communications open with the Republicans, because the fact is, given a Republican House, a Democratic Senate with substantial power in the Republican minority, and a Democratic president, if we don’t work together, it’s impossible.

As Bill Clinton would say, it’s just arithmetic.

JEFFREY BROWN: But I have to say, many talk that way and then come in and then look where we are, a very divided country, a very divided government.

So, can you give me a specific example of something that interests you, a subject for us now, whether fiscal, environmental, energy, immigration, all kinds of things on the table you’re walking into? How would you bridge the difference?

ANGUS KING: Well, I think one place we have to start is filibuster reform. I mean, I think part of the problem is that this institution of the United States Senate has largely been deadlocked for the past few years.

And I don’t believe — I’m a representative of a small state. I don’t think we should eliminate the filibuster but, I think there are reforms that can be made.

And it may well be that my first vote on Jan. 3 or 4 will be in that area. I know there’s some very substantial discussions going on. And most people believe, I think — we will find out when the votes are cast — that something really has to be done, because the country has some problems.

You listed a bunch of them, energy, health care costs, the debt, the deficit. But if we can’t make the institution itself work, we can never get to those problems.

Now, the next — after some structural reform that I hope will allow the institution to work better, the debt and the deficit has to be the next great problem. And that cries out for compromise.

That’s a mathematical problem that can be solved by people trying to meet in the middle. And, hopefully — and I see that there’s — I think there has to be a balanced approach. There have to be some additional revenues. There have to be some serious cuts.

And I can say that out loud and hopefully there are others and I know there are others who believe that as well. And we can find some place in the middle.

And I believe if we can do something about the debt and the deficit in the first few months of the next year, that in itself will significantly stimulate the economy.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me just ask you briefly, finally, a lot of talk this past week of the mandate of the president after this election and what should his stance be. Should it be more aggressive, kind of stand your ground now, or should it be more accommodating, compromising, reaching out?

What is your advice to him, if asked?

ANGUS KING: I think the answer is both. I think he needs to stake out a firm position, but I think he also needs to be prepared to be the deal-maker in chief.

I have talked to a number of people. I think he has an important in all of this to help the Congress move toward a solution. And he’s the guy who can put that on the table. So I would say he needs to be strong, as he was last night in his press conference. But he also needs to realize that, you know, the numbers have to add up at the end of the day and that Congress is going to ultimately make this decision, and so some accommodation can be had.

But I think he’s starting out in the proper place, which is staking out a strong position.

JEFFREY BROWN: Angus King is a senator — senator-elect of Maine.

Thanks so much.

ANGUS KING: Thank you, Jeff. Great to be with you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We will talk with other new faces in Congress in the coming weeks, including Virginia’s new senator, Democrat Tim Kaine.