PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — Independent U.S. Sen. Angus King expected partisan nastiness when he went to Washington this year to begin serving his first term. But the partisanship he found isn’t personal, he said; it’s institutional.
Lawmakers in both parties are personally friendly, he said, but as separate groups, they are lockstep on certain issues. He said that has kept Congress from passing a budget and agreeing on big-picture legislation.
‘‘On a personal level, it’s not a bad atmosphere. I'd heard about the poisonous atmosphere in Washington, and I haven’t experienced that,’’ King told The Associated Press in a recent interview. ‘‘I'd say it’s very partisan on an institutional basis, much less so on a personal basis,’’ he added.
As an example, King mentioned recent budget deliberations when minority Republicans began offering amendments. King eventually asked whether the Republicans would accept the Democratic budget with the amendments. The Republicans confessed that, no, they were against the bill, with or without amendments, he said.
‘‘Then I said, ‘What the hell are we doing here?'’’ King said.
In another instance, King thought the Senate had bipartisan votes to adopt some gun control legislation. He voted for it, and so did Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine. But it failed.
King continued Wednesday to press his colleagues to set aside differences as Republicans blocked an attempt to appoint a conference committee to settle differences with the House budget.
‘‘People who entered the room in good faith could solve this in an afternoon if they left their ideological blinders at the door,’’ said King, who supported elements of both budget versions.
Adopting a budget would ‘‘electrify’’ a country that’s become accustomed to partisan gridlock and increasingly angry with Congress, he said. ‘‘The act of at least coming up with a solution, not a perfect solution, but a solution, itself would be the most important thing that we can provide today to the people of this country,’’ he said.
The former two-term governor campaigned for the seat vacated by former Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe on the theme that the Senate is broken and needs repair.
As an independent, he said he wanted to serve as a bridge between the parties. So far, he said, it appears that bipartisan consensus will be found on a case-by-case basis, reaching across the aisle when there’s a willing hand. There doesn’t seem to be much common ground on certain subjects.
Snowe, marginalized in her own party for her moderate views, eventually became fed up.
But King, who at 69 is three years older than her, seems eager for the challenge. So far, he’s pleased that the atmosphere isn’t as toxic as he'd imagined.
It gives him reason for hope.
So far, he said the most surprising thing about the Senate is ‘‘the lack of stereotypical senators — pompous, making speeches all the time.’’
King pointed to the weekly bipartisan prayer breakfast.
On Wednesday, Republican Sen. Mike Enzi of Wyoming introduced the speaker, Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, of North Dakota. King said 10 Democrats and 14 Republicans attended, in addition to King, taking a break from the weekly grind to find common ground in faith.
So far, he’s spent one-on-one time with about half of the 100 senators.
‘‘By and large, real people. That’s been pretty cool. I like that,’’ he said.
Follow David Sharp at http://twitter.com/David_Sharp_AP