Sinema declares her independence
Will her switch change the calculus for Democrats in the U.S. Senate?
In a slight blow to the newfound Democratic majority in the U.S. Senate, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona has switched her party affiliation from Democrat to independent. But she made it clear that she has no intention to caucus with Republicans. In truth, Sinema told Politico she doesn’t feel like she falls into one camp or the other, but noted, “Nothing will change about my values or my behavior.”
Sinema’s decision to become an independent introduces a wildcard into major Senate decisions that will pressure Democrats—and the White House—to maintain the party’s unity.
Currently, Sens. Angus King of Maine and Bernie Sanders of Vermont are also independents, but both caucus with Senate Democrats, where they join the party’s policy decision-making process and count toward the total number of seats credited to Democrats. Sanders, who identifies as a democratic socialist and almost won the Democratic nomination for president twice, has been an independent since 1981. King ran for governor of Maine as an independent in 1994, beating out Republican Susan Collins, his current fellow U.S. senator from the Pine Tree State.
But Sinema’s independence could have a notably different effect on party politics than Sanders and King’s declarations. Her voting pattern in the past year has put tension between her and party leadership on issues like inflation and omnibus spending packages. Along with fellow Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Sinema’s vote has often been an outlier that has forced Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to cut back on bills like the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022. Sinema’s vote now means Democrats must keep all the other 50 party caucus members in line if they want to pass budget reconciliation legislation—a Senate procedure they’ve used to pass major spending packages with a simple majority.
With Sen. Raphael Warnock’s win over Republican Herschel Walker in the runoff election in Georgia Tuesday, Democrats managed to gain a slim majority in the Senate, 51-49. Now, as it is in the current 50-50 split, Vice President Kamala Harris, as president of the Senate, may have to continue casting her tie-breaking vote as Sinema may choose to vote with Republicans, abstain, or vote with Democrats with conditions attached.
Early reactions to Sinema’s decision remain mixed.
Sen. Schumer, who now must contend with leading the party with its slim majority, downplayed the significance of the decision, mentioning that he will allow Sinema to keep her committee assignments for the time being. “Kyrsten is independent; that’s how she’s always been,” he said. “I believe she’s a good and effective senator.”
Conservative commentator Ben Shapiro believes Sinema’s decision is politically advantageous for her. He sees her move as a way for her to remove the pressure to play along with Democratic Party objectives. “Sinema’s move is smart. She’s caucusing with the Democrats, presumably, a la Bernie Sanders and Angus King, so that means Democrats don’t spend cash in Arizona to bring her down,” he tweeted. “She now avoids a Democratic primary fight by running independent. It’s a win-win for her.”
The White House also released a statement on Sinema’s decision, acknowledging the senator’s contributions to shaping the Biden administration’s domestic policy agenda. “We understand that her decision to register as an independent in Arizona does not change the new Democratic majority control of the Senate, and we have every reason to expect that we will continue to work successfully with her,” said press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre.
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