Independent Maine Sen. Angus King was the subject of speculation in the U.S. Capitol on Thursday, a day after he voted with Republicans against the Paycheck Fairness Act.

King, who has caucused and voted consistently with the Senate’s Democratic majority since his election in 2012, was asked whether Wednesday’s vote was a sign that he might start caucusing with Republicans if the makeup of the Senate changes with November’s elections.

Holding his cards close as he often does, King did not rule it out.

If the Senate is closely divided by party after the elections, King could be in a position to demand a powerful committee seat in return for participating in party caucuses.

“I’ll make my decision at the time based on what I think is best for Maine,” he told The Hill, a Washington-based publication.

The headline in The Hill became “King may flip to GOP in 2015,” but in reality, his comments do not represent any shift.

He has been saying for the past two years that he is not beholden to either party, even though he often sides with Democrats, who have made the paycheck legislation a political priority before November’s elections.

“Sen. King only told The Hill newspaper what he’s always said – that his guiding principle is, and always will be, to do what is right for Maine,” his spokeswoman, Kathleen Connery Dawe, said Thursday. “He’s a proven consensus builder and will continue to work with members on both sides of the aisle, regardless of who’s in charge. He believes the people of Maine sent him here to find solutions, and that’s all he’s focused on.”

In any case, King is in a position to be a powerful and influential vote.

Democrats now have a 55-43 edge over Republicans in the Senate, with King and Bernie Sanders of Vermont the two independents. Sanders is consistently Democratic and considered much more liberal than King.

Many observers say Republicans have a good chance of winning the six seats they need to shift power in the Senate, but even if Republicans don’t gain six seats in November, it’s likely that the Democratic majority’s margin will shrink.

If King plays the middle, he could end up with a choice committee assignment, no matter who is in the majority, and committee assignments are political currency. In theory, his vote also could decide who becomes the next Senate majority leader.

“There is nothing fundamentally more invigorating to a senator than to be in a bidding war. It’s very flattering,” said Ross Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey and a former staff member or adviser to three senators – Harry Reid, Patrick Leahy and Chuck Hagel. “He’s a junior senator and this offers him an opportunity to step out of the rotation and move to the head of the line.”

King’s demurral about the possibility of switching teams, so to speak, drew a lot of attention in a short time Thursday. It’s hard to find a national politician who doesn’t enjoy that, Baker said.

Soon after a story appeared on the Portland Press Herald website Thursday reporting that King is keeping his options open, political insiders in Augusta pointed out that, just a few days ago, King was asked to speak at a private caucus of Maine Republican lawmakers.

David Sorensen, communications director for House Republicans, confirmed that King spoke to the caucus but said it was an informal talk about his time in Washington.

King spoke to House and Senate Democrats on the same day, said Connery Dawe, King’s spokeswoman.

After winning the Senate seat held previously by Republican Olympia Snowe, King said he felt it was important for him to caucus with the majority party. He also said that he would not always toe the Democratic Party line.

Last year, according to the Press Herald’s analysis of more than 200 votes, King sided with Democrats about 90 percent of the time. He broke from Democrats on key votes regarding gun control and student loan interest rates.

The National Journal, a nonpartisan Washington-based publication that ranks lawmakers every year based on roll call votes on bills that have clear ideological distinctions, placed King at No. 43 among the 100 senators for 2013, with 1 being the most liberal and 100 being the most conservative.

Baker, at Rutgers University, said King’s voting record likely wouldn’t change even if he did caucus with Republicans.

King maintained that Wednesday’s vote against the Paycheck Fairness Act, which prompted questions about which party he plans to caucus with, had nothing to do with which party backed the legislation.

The act would require employers to demonstrate that any pay gaps between male and female workers aren’t based on gender. Democrats are solidly behind the bill and plan to use it as a campaign message. Republicans have dismissed the legislation as unnecessary and have referred to it as an election-year stunt.

King said he opposes discrimination and thinks men and women should be paid the same, but he couldn’t support the bill.

“I’ve looked at this from all sides – I’ve talked to Mainers, to business leaders, to men and women, and this particular bill, in my view, fails to address the real causes that are driving the wage gap,” he said in a prepared statement. “In addition, the bill could impose substantial burdens on businesses in justifying pay differentials.

“The way to narrow the wage gap between men and women includes facilitating more family-friendly workplaces, which will allow women to stay in the work force if they choose to have children; encouraging more girls and young women to pursue higher-paying professions, like science, engineering, law and medicine; and improving the earning potential for low-wage workers, who are disproportionately women.”

Baker said King’s vote was the perfect place for him to break from Democrats. It was not the deciding vote and the measure is seen by most as “message” legislation.

“When you’re an independent, every once and a while you have to act that way,” he said.

Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at:

erussell@pressherald.com

Twitter: @PPHEricRussell