- Angus King, an independent, was elected to the Senate from Maine last year
- King caucuses with Democrats, but hopes to be a bridge between the two parties
- King bemoans the decline of centrism and compromise in politics
- King's personal hero is Civil War leader Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain
Angus King knows a thing or two about deep political divides.
Raised near the shadow of Robert E. Lee's Virginia home, Maine's freshman senator today lives down the street from the house once owned by Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, the Union hero who oversaw the formal surrender of Lee's army at Appomattox.
Chamberlain ordered his men "to salute the Confederate soldiers as they were surrendering their arms," King told an audience in 2009. "This was an unbelievably controversial act (but) it was the right thing to do. ... (It) helped profoundly to repair the breach of the Civil War."
Chamberlain "is my hero," King told CNN in a recent interview on Capitol Hill. A bust of the colonel greets visitors to King's Senate office. A depiction of Chamberlain's desperate defense of Little Round Top at the Battle of Gettysburg hangs on the wall.
In today's harshly polarized political climate, King, 68, is the rarest breed of Washington politician -- an independent, beholden to neither political party. A popular former two-term governor, he was swept into the Senate last November in a landslide.
He now occupies the seat previously held by Olympia Snowe, who surprisingly announced her retirement in early 2012. Snowe also was a rarity in national politics, a genuinely moderate Republican in an age of growing tea party turmoil.
King caucuses with Democrats. While aligning with one of the two parties is necessary to obtain valuable committee assignments and protect his state's interests, the political maverick insists he will not be in "automatic opposition" to either party.
"Being fiercely independent doesn't mean you have to be fierce," he declared on election night. The goal is "to be a bridge between my new colleagues on either side of the aisle, to bring people and our country closer to that more perfect union envisioned by our founders."
King told jubilant supporters that his election "and the message it sends can make a difference in the poisonous atmosphere of American politics today."
So roughly 40 days into his term, is the atmosphere on the Potomac as poisonous as he expected?
"I don't think so," he told CNN. "Or at least not so far. I think maybe that's the best way to put it. ... There are some glimmers of light."
Filibuster deal a glimmer of hope
One glimmer was the recent bipartisan negotiation over filibuster reform -- an attempt to get the Senate's legislative gears turning again by reducing the number of procedural roadblocks and showdowns requiring 60-vote supermajorities. While the relatively small changes enacted were "not as extensive as I would have liked, (they were) the result of bipartisan discussion, listening and compromise," King said. "That's what we want."
King is optimistic about immigration reform. The contentious issue rocketed up the GOP's priority list in the wake of Mitt Romney's dismal showing among Hispanic voters last fall, and President Barack Obama renewed his push on the issue in the State of the Union address.
A "bipartisan group of senators (is) talking about immigration ... and (considering) a pretty substantive package," King said. These are "not just vague goals but pretty clear steps. So those are positive signs."
King says he's now met individually with about 40 senators from both parties, and hasn't met anyone who fits "the pompous, pretentious, condescending movie image of the senator who talks in platitudes."
"What I've met are a lot of people who come from a variety of walks of life, who are here because they want to solve problems. They (just) have different views of how to do it."
As for his relationship with Senate GOP leaders since caucusing with the Democrats, King insists he's been "warmly received."
"All I can tell you is impressions," he cautioned. "We're not blood brothers, but ... I'm being treated with respect and with a degree of cordiality."
In meeting with several Republicans, "they're finding I'm not exactly the guy they thought I was," he told CNN.
"For example, (when) we're talking about regulation and I express my skepticism about overregulation and my desire to minimize and streamline regulation, you can almost see them say, 'hmm, this isn't what I thought.'"
Like most people in Congress, King is frustrated by what he describes as the self-inflicted wound of the looming budget sequester. The sequester is Washington-speak for nearly $1 trillion in new spending cuts across government agencies. The Pentagon will account for about half the savings, which would total roughly $85 billion this year alone. They are set to take effect on March 1 absent an agreement in Congress to defer or avert them entirely.
King blasted the process that led to sequester -- specifically the failure of a 2011 congressional super committee to agree on a more reasonably designed deficit-reduction package.
The sequester cuts were "supposed to be the sword of Damocles over the super committee and the super committee failed to reach a consensus. So here we are," King said. "We're like Wile E. Coyote, where we throw the anvil off the cliff, run to the bottom, and then act surprised when it hits us on the head."
Sequester a 'self-inflicted crisis'
This "is a totally self-inflicted crisis," he noted. "There's nothing magic about March 1. There's no credit default or immediate impact or anything. It's a totally arbitrary date and it just makes no sense. ... We're in a very fragile recovery right now, and to suddenly slam the breaks on a significant hunk of federal spending could very easily tip us back into some kind of recession."
King supports gradual deficit reduction efforts, but warns that both parties' sacred cows have to be on the table. For Republicans, that means higher taxes. For Democrats, Medicare and Medicaid.
"The sequester hits the two areas of the budget (defense and non-defense discretionary spending) that are in pretty decent control," he insisted. "The conventional wisdom that the federal government is out of control and spending is out of control (in these areas) just isn't accurate in terms of the numbers."
Unlike a lot of congressional freshmen, King isn't a Washington novice. His first stint on Capitol Hill came in the 1970s as an aide to William Hathaway, then a Democratic senator from Maine. Asked what's changed the most since, King cited the sharp rise in partisanship as more conservatives became Republicans and more liberals became Democrats.
"When I was here in the '70s there was a swath of ideological views from the right to the left. But it wasn't necessarily strictly according to party," he said. "One of the most conservative people in the Congress was John Stennis of Mississippi. He was a Democrat. One of the most liberal people in the Congress was Jacob Javits of New York, a Republican. So there was a lot of overlap, and there was a lot more willingness to sit down and try to find bipartisan solutions."
King remembers sitting in closed committee sessions and seeing legislative giants "argue and disagree and say 'that won't work' or 'this won't work.' But ultimately they found some kind of consensus and moved on."
"I was here two and a half years and I don't remember a single filibuster on anything," he said.
Today, Maine still has ideological diversity across the political spectrum. King's home state colleague is moderate Republican Susan Collins, but that's the exception to the increasingly ironclad rule.
What happened to the liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats? Why did they disappear?
King cites three factors: Increasingly precise gerrymandering of congressional districts, the fragmentation and balkanization of the news media, and an explosion of special interest money due partly to court rulings like Citizens United.
"Both parties, but particularly the Republicans, have sort of pulled back toward their base," King noted. "The Republicans have practically no moderates left. And 25, 30 years ago the Senate was full of them. ... That's a recipe for confrontation. You add all those things together and it has created a much more partisan atmosphere."
Trailblazing Maine senator another hero
Next to the depiction of Chamberlain's Gettysburg heroics hanging in King's office, there is a black and white picture of Margaret Chase Smith.
Smith, a trailblazing Maine Republican who served in Senate from 1949 to 1973, was the first woman to have her name in placed in nomination for president at a major party's political convention. She also led the charge against fellow Republican Joe McCarthy with her "Declaration of Conscience" speech on the Senate floor in 1950.
"She was no liberal, but she was certainly an independent thinker," King said. "I think she would chafe at the expectation of partisanship. She was a bit of a maverick (and) was never one of the good old boys. ... She had no trouble standing on her hind legs and calling them as she saw them."
While King draws inspiration from the memory of Smith and other Maine political giants, he also turns to religion.
A lifelong Episcopalian, he attends church regularly.
"I believe in a God who is engaged with the world but that we are individuals of free will who carry out his will," King said. "It's a paradox."
Faith is "a source of strength and perseverance under difficult circumstances," he added. "I want to live my faith and reflect it in my work, but I view it as personal guidance for me, not how other people should act."
But it's the story of Chamberlain that may resonate most deeply in terms of King's independent political career. A four-term governor, president of Bowdoin College, and eventual Medal of Honor winner, Chamberlain fell out of favor with Maine's political establishment.
King notes that local Republicans turned on Chamberlain with a vengeance for failing to support the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson -- a stance which probably cost the Civil War hero a U.S. Senate seat.
"He was deemed too independent," King said. Chamberlain instead ended his career as surveyor of the port of Portland.
The lesson of Chamberlain's life? That's an easy one.
"Do the right thing," King said. "And don't be afraid to charge every now and then."