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Sinema says she will leave Democrats and become independent

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) speaks as she is joined by Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), left; Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) at a news conference in Washington after passage of the same-sex marriage bill on Nov. 29, 2022.

By Carl Hulse

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona announced late last week that she would leave the Democratic Party and become an independent, unsettling the party divide anew just days after Democrats secured an expanded majority in the Senate.

“I have joined the growing numbers of Arizonans who reject party politics by declaring my independence from the broken partisan system in Washington,” she wrote in an opinion column published in The Arizona Republic.

Sinema’s decision put an abrupt damper on the jubilance Democrats experienced this week after their caucus secured a 51st seat in the Senate with Sen. Raphael Warnock’s victory in Georgia. It was likely to provide new complications for Sen. Chuck Schumer and Democrats going forward, even though she wrote in her column that “becoming an independent won’t change my work in the Senate; my service to Arizona remains the same.”

Still the move by the first-term senator, who was facing a likely Democratic reelection challenge in 2024 after angering her party by opposing key elements of its agenda, was unlikely to change the day-to-day reality in Washington for Democrats, who have long had to contend with her unpredictability and diversions from the party line. The bigger practical effect was likely to be on Sinema’s political standing in Arizona, where she would have had difficulty prevailing in a Democratic primary.

Sinema informed Schumer, D-N.Y., the majority leader, of her plans Thursday, according to a Senate Democratic aide who described the private conversation on the condition of anonymity. The aide said that Sinema would keep her committee positions through Democrats, meaning the party would still hold a one-seat edge on the panels next year, giving them new flexibility over nominations and legislation.

Sinema did not specifically say that she would still caucus with the Democrats, as do two other independent senators, Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Angus King of Maine. Even as a Democrat, she rarely attended the regular party meetings. But her appeal to Schumer to keep her committee posts — and his decision to grant it — effectively means she will be a third independent aligned with Democrats, preserving their 51-49 majority.

“She asked me to keep her committee assignments and I agreed,” Schumer said in a statement Friday morning. “Kyrsten is independent; that’s how she’s always been. I believe she’s a good and effective senator and am looking forward to a productive session in the new Democratic majority Senate.

“We will maintain our new majority on committees, exercise our subpoena power and be able to clear nominees without discharge votes,” he added.

Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary, noted that Sinema has strongly backed major Biden administration initiatives such as the infrastructure package, and said that President Joe Biden hoped to keep her as an ally.

“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,” Jean-Pierre said in a statement.

Other administration officials expect that her shift would change little about their interactions with her in the months ahead. One person involved in shaping the White House approach to working with her, who spoke on condition of anonymity, characterized her as difficult and contrarian, but noted that she ultimately had backed the president on critical votes, providing Biden and Democrats a successful legislative record to promote.

Her decision prompted a quick backlash in Arizona, where a group created to generate a primary campaign against her said it would now focus on unseating her in the general election.

“Today, Kyrsten Sinema told us what we’ve already known for years: She’s not a Democrat, and she’s simply out for herself,” the Primary Sinema campaign said in a statement. “In one way, Sinema just made our jobs easier by bowing out of a Democratic primary she knew she couldn’t win. Now, we’ll beat her in the general election with a real Democrat.”

Sinema has cast herself as a bipartisan deal-maker in the Senate and is often seen on the Republican side of the floor, conversing with and lobbying Republicans with whom she has worked on a variety of issues. Like Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., she has been a holdout on some major Democratic priorities such as tax increases. She and Manchin killed Democratic efforts to weaken the filibuster and push through new voting rights legislation this year. Arizona Democrats symbolically censured her after her filibuster vote.

Manchin, who was reelected this week to a spot in the Senate Democratic leadership, has been mentioned more often as a potential party-switcher given his own reelection difficulties in his deep-red state, and Republicans have made clear that they would welcome him.

But Sinema has also been assiduously courted by Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, who has praised her for refusing to bend on the filibuster. She appeared with him at an event at the McConnell Center in Louisville, Kentucky, in September, drawing criticism from Democrats who saw her as cozying up to the top Republican before the election that would decide party control of the Senate.

Sinema is more in line with Democrats on major social, cultural and environmental policies and was a key architect of the recent Senate agreement that paved the way for passage of legislation to mandate federal recognition of same-sex marriages, which cleared Congress this week over the opposition of most Republicans. She has been a reliable vote for the Biden administration’s judicial and executive branch nominees.

Where she has diverged with Democrats is more on fiscal and tax policy. She has blocked Democratic attempts to increase taxes on corporate America and Wall Street, drawing accusations that she was running interference for her wealthy donors.

Writing in The Arizona Republic, Sinema said that she had “never fit perfectly in either national party” and that the “loudest, most extreme voices continue to drive each party toward the fringes.”

“When politicians are more focused on denying the opposition party a victory than they are on improving Americans’ lives, the people who lose are everyday Americans,” she added.

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