WASHINGTON (AP) — Independent Senator-elect Angus King of Maine said Wednesday he has decided to caucus with Democrats, which will add to the party's voting edge.
His decision ends months of speculation about which party he would align with.
The former Maine governor was elected last week to replace retiring Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe, a prominent centrist who complained about Washington's partisan gridlock in stepping down. GOP and conservative super PACs spent millions of dollars to attack King during the campaign for Snowe's seat.
With King joining their caucus, Democrats will have a 55 to 45 edge in the Senate.
King said that caucusing with Democrats will still allow him to take independent positions on issues.
"I have decided to affiliate with the Democratic Caucus because doing so will allow me to take independent positions on issues as they arise and at the same time be an effective representative for the people of Maine," King said.
Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada welcomed King to the caucus.
"I'm confident Senator King with be a bridge to working with Republicans," Reid said.
King said he considered not aligning with either party, but realized he could be shut out of committee assignments, where the bulk of legislative work gets done, and that would have hurt his effectiveness on issues vital to Maine.
He said aligning with Democrats does not mean he's "in automatic opposition" to the GOP.
King had requested a seat on the Senate Finance Committee, a plum assignment usually reserved for more senior lawmakers, in recent talks with Reid, but said Reid made it clear that was not likely to happen.
"My father used to say, 'If you don't ask, you don't get,'" said King. Snowe serves on the finance panel.
King has vowed to vote his conscience, saying independent voices like his are needed to try to break the partisan gridlock in Congress.
The 68-year-old King was Maine's governor for two terms between 1995 and 2003, establishing credentials as someone who could work with both parties. Before that he spent 18 years as a commentator on the Maine Public Broadcasting Network, reporting and analyzing state public policy issues.
He's a former Democrat who backs President Barack Obama, but who also supported George Bush in 2000. He backs Obama's health care overhaul. His views on issues like abortion rights and environmental causes track most closely with Democrats.
King has Capitol Hill experience, working as an aide to former Sen. William Hathaway, D-Maine, in the 1970s.
Full statement from King on caucus choice
November 14, 2012
"Today, I am announcing my decision as to which party, if any, I will associate myself with in my work in the United States Senate. Before doing so, however, I want to outline my thinking on this issue and set out the principles that have guided my decision.
In answering this question repeatedly during the campaign, I established two basic criteria-that I wanted to maintain my independence as long and as thoroughly as possible while at the same time being effective in my representation of Maine.
The first option I considered was whether I could literally go it alone, not align myself with either party and operate entirely outside the current partisan structure of the Senate. Although tempting in many ways, it has become apparent--from extensive research into Senate rules and precedents as well as discussions with individuals familiar with the workings of the Senate--that this simply would not be practical and, in fact, would severely compromise my effectiveness on behalf of Maine.
The principal disadvantage of this approach is that I would likely be largely excluded from the committee process which is where most of the work in any legislative body gets done. Occasionally, my vote would prove crucial and be eagerly sought by both sides, but in the long run, I would be relegated to the sidelines as the day-to-day work of the Senate was done by others.
The second question, then, is which side to choose--and the outcome of last week's elections in some ways makes this decision relatively easy. In the situation where one party has a clear majority and effectiveness is an important criteria, affiliating with the majority makes the most sense. The majority has more committee slots to fill, has more control over what bills get considered, and more control over the Senate schedule.
But the question remains, what does caucusing mean and how does this decision affect my intention to remain as independent as possible? In order to answer this, I had substantial conversations with the two independent Senators currently serving in the Senate, both of whom are affiliated with the Democratic caucus, Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Bernie Sanders of Vermont. Both confirmed that the Democratic caucus generally and its leadership in particular had consistently allowed them to maintain their independent positions and had never forced positions upon them in the name of party loyalty.
Secondly, I had lengthy discussions with the Democratic leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, as well as former majority leader George Mitchell on this very question. I came away from these conversations reassured that my independence would be respected and no party line commitment would be required or expected.
And so I have decided to affiliate with the Democratic Caucus because doing so will allow me to take independent positions on issues as they arise and at the same time be an effective representative of the people of Maine.
One final word. By associating myself with one side, I am not in automatic opposition to the other. In the situation of a Republican House, a Democratic Senate but with substantial powers in the minority, and a Democratic president, no one party can control the outcome of our collective deliberations. As Bill Clinton might say, it's just arithmetic. In fact, this situation has only two possible outcomes-action based upon good-faith compromise or no action resulting from political deadlock.
And this latter is simply unacceptable to the American people.
We must find a way to act because many of the problems before us-the debt and deficit is the best example-have a time fuse; the longer we avoid acting, the worse they get. In this case no decision is, itself, a decision, and it's almost certainly the wrong one.
The challenges before us are too great and the stakes too high to allow partisan differences to keep us from finding common ground--and I hope that in a small way I may be able to act as a bridge between the parties, an honest broker to help nudge us toward solutions.
I have talked with more than a dozen Senators of both parties in the past three days and have been impressed by their seriousness of purpose and good faith desire to serve the country. I am humbled and honored to be among them and look forward to working with each of them in the months and years ahead as we struggle to fulfill the fundamental promise of the Constitution-to form a more perfect union."