WASHINGTON – Angus King is going with the Democrats.

After months of speculation and sidestepping the question, King announced Wednesday morning what many observers had long ago predicted: He will caucus with the Democratic Party when he officially assumes his seat in the Senate early next year.

“The outcome of last week’s election in some ways makes this decision relatively easy,” said King, an independent. “In a situation where one party has the clear majority and effectiveness is an important criteria, affiliating with the majority makes more sense.”

King’s widely expected decision to side with the Democrats will effectively give the party a 55-to-45 edge over Republicans in the Senate, up from the 53-seat majority they now hold. It also means Maine will have a senator caucusing on both sides of the aisle, although both King and Republican Sen. Susan Collins are considered centrists.

The former two-term Maine governor refused throughout his campaign to affiliate himself with one of the parties and, instead, said that as an independent he could help bridge the partisan divide in Washington. King’s announcement Wednesday means he will remain an independent, but that he will participate in weekly strategy meetings held by the Democrats. Caucus members are also often expected to support the party on close partisan votes, such as overcoming a filibuster.

But King insisted Wednesday — as he did throughout his campaign — that just because he is caucusing with one of the parties does not mean he plans to toe the party line. Nor does affiliating with one side mean that he will be “in automatic opposition to the other,” he said.

King said he spoke at length with the Senate’s two current independents — Sens. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut and Bernie Sanders of Vermont — as well with former Maine Sen. George Mitchell and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.

“I came away from these conversations reassured that my independence would be respected and that no party-line commitment would be required or expected,” King told reporters at a Capitol news conference. “And so I have decided to affiliate myself with the Democratic caucus because doing so will allow me to take independent positions on issues as they arise and, at the same time, will allow me to be an effective representative of the people of Maine.”

King struck a middle ground between Republican and Democratic positions on many issues during the campaign. He backed a compromise plan to avoid the so-called fiscal cliff, a combination of tax increases and spending cuts scheduled to take effect in January if Congress doesn’t agree to a debt-reduction plan. King, for example, said he supports increasing taxes on people earning more than $250,000, but that the timing of the increase should be based on some level of strength in the economy rather than decided by political “brinksmanship.”

Although not required, caucusing with a party is key to being assigned to the Senate committees where most of the legislative work is done and where individual lawmakers can often have the biggest impact. Attempting to “go it alone” would have largely excluded King from the committee process.

There was some speculation during the campaign that King might try to use the caucus question to negotiate his committee seats. King told Reid that he was interested in the Senate Finance Committee, which handles taxes, health care and other high-profile issues. Retiring Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe serves on the Finance Committee.

“Sen. Reid reminded me that it took John Kerry (of Massachusetts) 14 years to get on Finance, so I think that is a pretty tall order for a first-year senator,” King said. “But we did talk about some other committees that are of significance to Maine.”

Committee assignments are unlikely to be announced until next year. King declined to say which other committee he is angling for, but said he is “confident I will be treated fairly.”

King made his announcement at a lectern just outside the Senate chamber in a space where party leaders typically hold news conferences. As King spoke to reporters, Reid quietly walked up and stood behind the senator-elect. Reid then said he “couldn’t be happier” with King’s decision, calling him “a man of principle,” and that the caucus welcomed another independent into their fold.

“I embrace that independence. The caucus embraces that independence,” Reid said. “I am confident that Sen. King will be a bridge to working with the Republicans and explaining to the American people that we need to accomplish more for our country.”

The two then turned and walked away together.

King said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky never contacted him about joining the Republican caucus, although he did meet with a member of the Republican leadership, Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, on Tuesday. Republicans and Republican-aligned groups had seemed resigned to King’s siding with the Democrats for months now and spent roughly $4 million to oppose his election.

King said Wednesday that spending by outside groups against him did not factor into his decision, and that it did not come up during his recent conversations with Republicans.

“As far as I’m concerned, it’s history,” King said in the interview. “I’m looking forward at this point. People do what they have to do with the campaigns and now we move forward.”

Snowe, a moderate Republican who is retiring in January, said she hopes King will be able to bring more Democratic members to the table with Republicans on key issues as well.

“Because it is going to require both sides to come to the middle in the final analysis, and hopefully he can play that role,” she said.

Washington Bureau Chief Kevin Miller can be contacted at 317-6256 or at:

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