Since his election as a nominal independent in 2012, Maine Senator Angus King has been a reliable vote for the Democrats, with whom he has chosen to caucus. Considering that the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee actively worked for the former governor and against the nominal candidate from its own party, King’s independence seemed to be more a figure of speech than an actual political stance. But with Democratic control of the Senate very much in question this November, it turns out Majority Leader Harry Reid can’t depend on him as much as perhaps he thought he could. As The Hill reports, King is now making it clear that his vote will be very much up for grabs in January when the next Congress meets and that he will go with whichever party is in the majority.
The best indication that King is beginning to shore up his ties with the GOP Senate caucus came yesterday when he was the only member of the Senate to cross party lines on the vote on the Paycheck Fairness Act. The vote on the bill was a Democratic ploy intended to embarrass GOP senators who could be depicted as voting against gender equality. The legislation did nothing to correct inequities that existing laws don’t already account for and its substance was largely a gift to trial lawyers, a key element in Democratic fundraising. But King wouldn’t play along and voted no along with all of the GOP senators (Reid also voted no as a procedural tactic so he could resurrect the bill at some point in the future). While no one should assume that King is turning his coat before he has to, his decision to defy the Democrats on this issue was perhaps a declaration of real independence from the party with which he has associated himself since taking office. More than anything it is a sign that the proverbial rats are leaving the Democrats’ Senate ship before it sinks.
That King is primarily in business for himself is not in question. Though he described any move he makes as being in the interests of his state, it should be taken as a given that his desk will be on the side of the Senate chamber where the majority sits regardless of who wins the midterms. That means that if the Democrats somehow hold onto their majority even by the most slender of margins, he will stay put. But if the Republicans get the six seats they need for a 51-49 majority, it will almost certainly become 52-48 in their favor provided that they pay whatever price King demands in terms of committee assignments and anything else he can think of.
But what would really be interesting is if the GOP only gains 5 seats and the midterms produce a 50-50 tie in the Senate. Up until now, the assumption has been that would leave Reid as majority leader since Vice President Biden would cast the deciding vote in favor of the Democrats when the Senate organizes in January. But such a result would also give King the opportunity to bargain with both sides. The competition for his services would be as unseemly as it would be costly. But given the cynical way he has approached the question of his party affiliation, who can doubt that the bidding will produce a wild auction with King the big winner?
If one takes into account the possibility that the close race in Louisiana where Democrat Mary Landrieu is in trouble may lead to a runoff in December if neither the incumbent nor her Republican challenger gets 50 percent of the vote, the there’s a good chance we won’t know who will be running the Senate until weeks after election day. But the fact that King is already sending signals that he will put himself up for auction is a very bad sign for the Democrats who have been counting on him.