Angus King knows a thing or two about deep political divides.
Raised near the shadow of Robert E. Lee's Virginia home, Maine's freshman senator today lives down the street from the house once owned by Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, the Union hero who oversaw the formal surrender of Lee's army at Appomattox.
Chamberlain ordered his men "to salute the Confederate soldiers as they were surrendering their arms," King told an audience in 2009. "This was an unbelievably controversial act (but) it was the right thing to do. ... (It) helped profoundly to repair the breach of the Civil War."
Chamberlain "is my hero," King told CNN in a recent interview on Capitol Hill. A bust of the colonel greets visitors to King's Senate office. A depiction of Chamberlain's desperate defense of Little Round Top at the Battle of Gettysburg hangs on the wall.
In today's harshly polarized political climate, King, 68, is the rarest breed of Washington politician -- an independent, beholden to neither political party. A popular former two-term governor, he was swept into the Senate last November in a landslide.
He now occupies the seat previously held by Olympia Snowe, who surprisingly announced her retirement in early 2012. Snowe also was a rarity in national politics, a genuinely moderate Republican in an age of growing tea party turmoil.
King caucuses with Democrats. While aligning with one of the two parties is necessary to obtain valuable committee assignments and protect his state's interests, the political maverick insists he will not be in "automatic opposition" to either party.
"Being fiercely independent doesn't mean you have to be fierce," he declared on election night. The goal is "to be a bridge between my new colleagues on either side of the aisle, to bring people and our country closer to that more perfect union envisioned by our founders."
King told jubilant supporters that his election "and the message it sends can make a difference in the poisonous atmosphere of American politics today."
So roughly 40 days into his term, is the atmosphere on the Potomac as poisonous as he expected?
"I don't think so," he told CNN. "Or at least not so far. I think maybe that's the best way to put it. ... There are some glimmers of light."
Filibuster deal a glimmer of hope
One glimmer was the recent bipartisan negotiation over filibuster reform -- an attempt to get the Senate's legislative gears turning again by reducing the number of procedural roadblocks and showdowns requiring 60-vote supermajorities. While the relatively small changes enacted were "not as extensive as I would have liked, (they were) the result of bipartisan discussion, listening and compromise," King said. "That's what we want."
King is optimistic about immigration reform. The contentious issue rocketed up the GOP's priority list in the wake of Mitt Romney's dismal showing among Hispanic voters last fall, and President Barack Obama renewed his push on the issue in the State of the Union address.
A "bipartisan group of senators (is) talking about immigration ... and (considering) a pretty substantive package," King said. These are "not just vague goals but pretty clear steps. So those are positive signs."
King says he's now met individually with about 40 senators from both parties, and hasn't met anyone who fits "the pompous, pretentious, condescending movie image of the senator who talks in platitudes."
"What I've met are a lot of people who come from a variety of walks of life, who are here because they want to solve problems. They (just) have different views of how to do it."
As for his relationship with Senate GOP leaders since caucusing with the Democrats, King insists he's been "warmly received."
"All I can tell you is impressions," he cautioned. "We're not blood brothers, but ... I'm being treated with respect and with a degree of cordiality."
In meeting with several Republicans, "they're finding I'm not exactly the guy they thought I was," he told CNN.
"For example, (when) we're talking about regulation and I express my skepticism about overregulation and my desire to minimize and streamline regulation, you can almost see them say, 'hmm, this isn't what I thought.'"
Like most people in Congress, King is frustrated by what he describes as the self-inflicted wound of the looming budget sequester. The sequester is Washington-speak for nearly $1 trillion in new spending cuts across government agencies. The Pentagon will account for about half the savings, which would total roughly $85 billion this year alone. They are set to take effect on March 1 absent an agreement in Congress to defer or avert them entirely.
King blasted the process that led to sequester -- specifically the failure of a 2011 congressional super committee to agree on a more reasonably designed deficit-reduction package.
The sequester cuts were "supposed to be the sword of Damocles over the super committee and the super committee failed to reach a consensus. So here we are," King said. "We're like Wile E. Coyote, where we throw the anvil off the cliff, run to the bottom, and then act surprised when it hits us on the head."
Sequester a 'self-inflicted crisis'