WASHINGTON — He’s been asked the question probably more than any other during a campaign that drew national media attention and political money: Would Angus King align himself with the Democrats or Republicans?
On Wednesday, Mainers who voted to send King to Washington may finally have their answer.
“I am going to try to. I am having some further discussions today and will probably have some comments for your sometime tomorrow,” King told reporters Tuesday when asked whether he would announce his caucus decision in time to participate in Wednesday’s selection of party leaders.
Whenever that announcement finally comes, King’s decision is not expected to surprise many lawmakers, Capitol Hill staffers or congressional observers. Although a political independent from a state where unenrolled voters are the largest voting block, King is widely believed to lean toward the Democratic side of the aisle.
In fact, some media organizations already lump King in with the Democrats to give the party a 55-to-45 edge over Republicans in the Senate.
In another potential indication, Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada has spoken to King several times since last Tuesday and met with him in Washington on Monday. Reid’s counterpart from the other side, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, had not spoken with or met with King as of Tuesday evening.
“I know he has been very cagey but I can’t see him caucusing with this Republican Party,” said Ross Baker, a politics professor at Rutgers University and former longtime congressional staffer and research associate at the Brookings Institution.
King attracted national media attention throughout the election because of the possibility that he could tip the balance in the Senate, even though most observers expect him to caucus with the Democrats due to his support for President Barack Obama and more left-leaning social views. Democrats strengthened their majority in the Senate last week, lessening the potential leverage King could have commanded in a more closely divided chamber.
On Tuesday, King met with Republican Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Roy Blunt of Missouri, who holds leadership positions in the Republican Conference and on his party’s whip team.
A crowd of about 20 journalists gathered inside Collins’ office to watch the pair exchange gifts — cuff links for King and a tea-maker for Collins — and then waited outside for the two to speak afterward.
Collins said it was “wonderful to welcome a fellow centrist to the Senate” and said she “would love to Angus King as a member of our Republican caucus,” noting that she believes his fiscal perspective fit in nicely with her party. Yet even King’s future colleague from Maine didn’t appear to be making a hard sell on the caucus issue, or at least not publicly, following a meeting where the two talked about committee assignments and working together.
“But regardless, I am positive that he will not be an automatic vote for either caucus and instead will look at the issues on their merits,” Collins said.
The parties caucus — or meet privately among themselves — to do things like pick committee chairmen, set the party’s legislative agenda and talk about other party-specific policy.
King’s cageyness didn’t seem to trouble Maine voters. Unofficially, the former two-term governor received 53 percent of the vote in an election with five other candidates on the ballot.
King steadfastly refused during the campaign to affiliate himself with either party even as many observers said he would likely side with Democrats. Instead, he claimed throughout that he was running against the partisanship in Washington that prompted Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe, a moderate known for working across the aisle, to drop her re-election bid.
“The important thing is whichever decision I make … I don’t consider that building a wall between myself and the other party,” King said Tuesday. “When I was a governor as an independent I worked with both parties.”
But he did say several times during the campaign that he would remember who ran ads against him. The Republican National Senatorial Committee and two other Republican-aligned political action committees each spent more than $1 million on ads either opposing King or supporting his Republican opponent, Charlie Summers.
King has also spoken with the two current independents in the Senate, Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
King met Monday with Snowe, who is retiring at the end of this term. In a statement, Snowe said they discussed a number of issues and that she offered to help King with his transition.
“I believe his bipartisan approach is right on target and is what is required for the people of Maine, as it is critical for Members of Congress to work across the aisle to address the enormous challenges facing the nation,” Snowe said.
King and other soon-to-be senators spent much of Tuesday attending special introductory sessions and workshops, enjoying a joint luncheon and beginning the process of setting up an office. As a new senator, King has been assigned temporary office space in the basement of one of the Senate buildings until permanent space becomes available.