OVERLAND PARK, Kan. — The power in the Senate could increasingly flow not to Harry Reid or Mitch McConnell, but to a few independents who could hold the keys to the majority — and they know it.
The two unexpected GOP trouble spots in the Midwest feature independent candidates who are making noise about not joining either side in a divided Senate. In Kansas it's Greg Orman, who is challenging long-time GOP incumbent Pat Roberts. Republicans are extremely dubious of Orman, pointing to campaign dollars he's given to top Democrats, although Orman is fond of pointing to contributions to Republicans as well.
"I think what I've said and what I've been clear about since the beginning, is if one party or the other is in the majority I will seek to caucus with the party that is in the majority. But that if I get elected, and neither party is in the majority, then what I'm going to do is sit down with both sides, propose a pro-problem solving agenda and ask both sides, whether or not they’re willing to support that agenda. And we’re going to be likely to support the agenda, and the party that’s most likely to embrace a pro-problem-solving agenda," Orman told reporters gathered after Wednesday's debate . Orman has not said whether he would change the party he caucused with if control of the Senate were to switch hands in 2016 or 2018.
In South Dakota, Larry Pressler, a former three-term Republican senator who has backed President Barack Obama launched what seemed like a quixotic bid for another six years, has sounded much the same.
"I would caucus with whichever party would give me fundamental roll call votes," Pressler told MSNBC last month. "Under Senate rules, one can caucus either as an independent or a Republican or a Democrat, and I've been advised to wait until I get there and to see how I can help South Dakota the most.
"We now have two independent senators. If we get another one from Kansas and myself, we'll then have at least four independent senators, and this may be the start of something big in American politics," said Pressler, who looks competitive in the three-way race that's developed in South Dakota.
Orman said the only current senator he's talked to is a fellow independent, Angus King of Maine. King joined the Democratic caucus for the 113th Congress, a move that was widely expected. Orman, however, said King wasn't asking him to join the Democratic side if elected. Orman also told reporters that he had not been contacted by Democratic leadership or any surrogates to try to persuade him to caucus with them.
"In fact he said very specifically that he would be excited about a time when he and I were in a position where neither party has a majority, that ultimately he thinks that’s one of the ways to break the gridlock in Washington," Orman said of King.
Perhaps the only other person who knows what it's really like to be a newly-arrived independent senator is Dean Barkley of Minnesota. Reached for an interview Wednesday, Barkley sounded particularly excited by the possibility of King, Orman and perhaps a third independent, such as Bernard Sanders of Vermont, teaming up in forming a leadership group.
"If they all got together, they could control the place," Barkley said, calling that "a nice scenario."
Then-Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura had appointed Barkley to fill out the soon-to-expire term of Paul Wellstone in November 2002, after Wellstone died in a plane crash just 11 days before the general election. Barkley served for almost no time with the chamber lights on for legislative business. He opted against joining up with either of the major parties.
"We didn't even get into committee assignments, but I would assume that the majority — whoever is in control — that he would ... work with that controlling caucus for committee assignments," Barkley said. "I'm not sure because it never came up."
There's almost no precedent for a senator not joining with either the Democrats or the Republicans in the modern Senate, and as was the case when King was running during the 2012 cycle, there are overwhelming advantages to picking sides. Orman would not speak to the possibility of King switching, however.
"You know I think Sen. King really needs to speak for Sen. King," Orman said. "But I think if you look at his past statements he’s been very clear that at the end of the day, he’s open to making decisions that he thinks are in the best interest of the country, not one party or the other."
In a Wednesday interview, Barkley made a key point — assuming all 100 Senate seats are filled, a move to abstain from the caucusing process and leadership elections by a single senator would amount to a decision of which party would be in control.
"When I kept it 50-49, that meant Daschle stayed in control. So, whoever is staying in control I'm sure would be more than willing to work with you to get you committee assignments and for any staffing needs to help you find the appropriate people to fill out your staff," Barkley predicted.
Orman, for his part, sounds like he wouldn't vote for either of the current leaders.
"What I’ve said consistently is both Mitch McConnell and Harry Reid have been far too partisan far too long to enjoy my support for majority leader," Orman said Wednesday. "I think both parties would be well served by looking at someone who’s worked in a bipartisan way. "
Just like with Barkley, if Orman refuses to vote for either McConnell or Reid, that could help McConnell. That's because in a 50-50 scenario, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. would cast the tie-breaking vote for the Democrats.
Barkley recalled the wooing process before arriving at his choice.
"I think I was the most popular senator around at that point in time. I mean, George Bush called me immediately and as soon as I got sworn-in I went over to the Oval Office for consultation with George, President Bush," Barkley said. "Trent Lott, he invited me over to his office and did a full press on me for about an hour, hour-and-a-half to get me to caucus with the Republicans. In fact, when I was done with that he, without me knowing it had the whole press corps there."
Orman seems well aware of the leverage he would have in a majority-deciding position. Asked if he thought not committing to a party yet would impact his ability to get committee assignments he wanted, he told reporters Wednesday, "I think that we will be in a position where we’ll have the opportunity to work to get on the right committees." Orman expressed interest in panels dealing with health, armed services and agriculture.
Daschle lost the majority leader's role for the start of the new Congress with the pendulum swing in the 2002 mid-terms, but because Barkley did not join a caucus, it left the South Dakota Democrat in charge for what was a brief lame-duck session.
The entire parlor game could be moot, of course, if Orman or Pressler won election to a Senate with a clear partisan leadership division and he followed through on his stated position that he would caucus with the majority.
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