Maine's junior Senator Angus King visited the Midcoast May 2, to meet with constituents and said his first question is "how can I help?"

King was in the area to speak with citizens and gather information about issues facing local community members. Two local businesses King visited were Fisher Engineering in Rockland and Coastal Farms and Food in Belfast.

The lack of functionality of the federal government is what spurred King to run for public office again, taking the seat of veteran Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe in January.

With the nation facing serious issues like health care and defense policy in a seemingly defunct institution, resolution was at a stalemate. King said he is now trying to figure out how to make it work, taking one issue at a time.

"I wasn't naive in thinking I'd get everybody to link arms in the first 100 days," he said.

Washington is institutionally partisan, with Congress voting party lines on major issues, like gun control and the budget, he said.

Yet personally, he said, Washington is not so partisan. King has met one-on-one with 50 Senators, and said he is determined to eventually sit down with all 99.

King said partisan politics in Washington will persist as long as there are two parties, but sees opportunity for bipartisan deals on smaller issues, such as the pending Marketplace Fairness Act legislation.

Budgetary conflicts reflect the core values of the two parties, with Republicans vowing not to raise taxes and Democrats not wanting changes to entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare.

When two sides come to the table with predetermined non-negotiables, he said, differences are hard to resolve. The basic, philosophical argument between parties is the size and scope of government, King said.

Four Democrats and four Republicans are working on comprehensive immigration reform, which will be a measure of how willing the 113th Congress is to act, he said.

In the Senate primaries last June, 13 percent of Republicans voted and 9 percent of Democrats voted, illustrating a weak turnout that gives a small amount of people a disproportionate influence on the outcome of an election.

One highly motivated constituency — often activists — decide the winner.

In Washington, some lawmakers are looking over their shoulders at the coming primary, and not their position as it applies to all the voters in their state, King said. With narrow group turn out, it tends to pull parties to the edges as activists from both sides are more apt to participate.

To mitigate polarization, more public participation is needed, as well as open primary consideration, and more independent candidates. Running as an independent, King said he did not have to worry about catering to a sub-set of a sub-set, but rather the entire population.

The recent background check amendment, which failed to overcome a filibuster in the Senate last month, is still technically alive and on the floor. But to bring it back, Democrats will have to know they have votes for passage — five to six Republican Senators would need to switch their position, he said.

King references an interview where amendment co-author Sen. Partick Toomey, R-Penn., said he thought the principal reason some Republicans voted against the bill is because it would had given President Obama a legislative victory.

"I find that appalling, it should be what's good for the country, not whether or not the president wins or loses. It was really disappointing," King said.

King said he thought a deal would be reached with conservative Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virgina — who has an A rating with the National Rifle Association — co-sponsoring the bill.

Manchin is determined and not giving up, King said.

"I have not yet heard a straight faced argument against background checks," he said.

King said the public is being misled when told a gun directory and firearm confiscation would occur if closing background check loopholes were to pass. The amendment actually included legislation that would make trying to create such a directory a federal felony, he said.

The argument to quell the fear of such action, he said, is the country has had background checks for 14 years and there is no gun registry now.

The only problem with current background checks is it only covers two-thirds of gun sales, barring online and gun show sales. The amendment, if passed last month, would have captured more commercial transactions, he said.

King said the familiar National Rifle Association slogan — "guns don't kill people, people kill people" — is akin to the objective to keep guns out of the hands of people who are likely to hurt others, like the mentally ill or convicted felons.

The United States loses 30,000 citizens a year to guns — 10,000 suicides,10,000 accidents and 10,000 murders. Just taking the murders and dividing the numbers amount to having a Newtown tragedy every day, 365 days a year, he said.

"I don't know how we can call ourselves a civilized society and turn a blind eye," he said.

For lawmakers voting against the bill, he expects there will be a political price.

"A lot will depend on how much energy there is on this issue a year from now when one-third of the Senate is up for re-election," he said.

Maine has one of the highest gun ownership rates in county, as well as one of the lowest crime rates in country, he said. Many hunters he has talked with are supportive of expanding background checks, he said.

A lot of the problems are urban, and the rural culture is supportive of guns, without urban area problems, he said. The Senate is a tilt more representative of rural interest, as each state has two senators.

On sequestration

Sequestration — $85 million in across the board spending cuts in defense and domestic programs beginning March 1 — is affecting Maine in a lot of ways, and none of them are good, King said. The cuts target everything from Meals on Wheels to border patrol, and head start teachers.

It was a deal made when an agreement on the debt ceiling was not reached in 2011.

The sequester is expected to cost Maine 5,000 jobs, and, two months into the austerity measures, it is affecting the national economy, he said.

King said it is a terrible public policy that was designed to be stupid. That Congress and the White House have not been able to make a deal to unwind it is terrible, he said, and as measures begin to further impact people, it will force Congress to make a deal, he said.

King supports half cuts and half tax revenue. With a House, Senate and presidential budget, there is a deal to be had if there is a will to do it, he said.

"It's not a question of making the numbers work, but if you want to make them work," he said.  "We could solve it here in an hour. The decisions are hard, but it's not that complex."

If the criteria of not wanting the president to have a legislative win persists, a deal may not be reached, he said.

"If gridlock is described as success, then you can never reach a conclusion." he said.

Issues of importance to Maine people, as he has heard from constituents, include tax simplification, tax fairness, job training and energy. It is the same kind of problem solving he worked on as governor, he said — a title many still associate with him.

"Most people still call me 'Governor' everywhere I go, [Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid calls me 'Governor,'" he said.

He said bringing natural gas to the area, could help many businesses like FMC and Back Cove Yachts.  A natural gas pipeline from Searsport to the Loring Naval Air Base in Aroostook County would be a benefit to area businesses, he said. King said his role is to ask how can he help with pipeline and environmental policy.

Working as a Senator is two jobs, King said — attending hearings, committee meetings working on legislation and voting and dually, constituent service. King estimates he meets with 50 to 100 Mainers each week in the Capitol.

"It's exhilarating — a great, incredible, and humbling opportunity, he said, to walk to work and see the U.S. Capitol building."

Courier Publications reporter Juliette Laaka can be reached at 594-4401 ext. 118 or via email at jlaaka@courierpublicationsllc.com.