Kyrsten Sinema announces she is quitting Democratic Party to become an independent

‘I have joined the growing numbers of Arizonans who reject party politics,’ says mercurial centrist senator

Andrew Naughtie
Friday 09 December 2022 17:23 GMT
Kyrsten Sinema announces she’s quitting Democratic Party

Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema has announced she is leaving the Democratic Party to sit as an independent, leaving her party with the same number of Senate seats they had before the midterm elections.

Revealing the news on Twitter along with a slick campaign-style video, Ms Sinema – whose economically conservative centrism has at times caused major problems for Joe Biden’s agenda – wrote that “In a natural extension of my service since I was first elected to Congress, I have joined the growing numbers of Arizonans who reject party politics by declaring my independence from the broken partisan system in Washington and formally registering as an Arizona Independent.

“Over the past four years, I’ve worked proudly with other Senators in both parties and forged consensus on successful laws helping everyday Arizonans build better lives for themselves and their families.

“Becoming an Independent won’t change my work in the Senate; my service to Arizona remains the same.”

Ms Sinema becomes the third independent currently sitting in the upper chamber of Congress, joining Vermont’s Bernie Sanders and Maine’s Angus King – both of whom caucus with the Democrats, thus giving Mr Biden’s party the majority. Ms Sinema is so far expected to stay in the caucus.

But Representative Ruben Gallego, whom many expected to challenge her in a Democratic primary, lambasted Ms Sinema’s move.

“Last month, the voters of Arizona made their voices heard loud and clear--they want leaders who will put their interests ahead of big drug companies and Wall Street bankers,” he said in a statement. “At a time when our nation needs leadership most, Arizona deserves a voice that won’t back down from a struggle. Unfortuntately, Senator Sinema is once again putting her own interests ahead of getting things done for Arizonans.”

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said in a statement that the administration does not expect the news to affect the workings of the Senate for the purposes of the president’s agenda.

“Senator Sinema has been a key partner on some of the historic legislation President Biden has championed over the last 20 months,” Ms Jean-Pierre said, “from the American Rescue Plan to the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, from the Inflation Reduction Act to the CHIPS and Science Act, from the PACT Act to the Gun Safety Act to the Respect for Marriage Act, and more.

“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.”

Raphael Warnock’s victory in the Georgia runoff this week gave Democrats a 51st vote in the Senate, meaning the party would have majorities on committees that in the current Congress have been tied. That in turn would mean they had a far better chance of confirming crucial Biden adminstration nominees in votes that tend to fall along party lines.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said that she would stay on her committee assignments.

“Senator Sinema informed me of her decision to change her affiliation to Independent. She asked me to keep her committee assignments and I agreed. Kyrsten is independent; that’s how she’s always been,” Mr Schumer said in a statement. “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.”

It is also not clear how Ms Sinema’s change of affiliation could affect the 2024 Senate election map. Her current term is due to expire at the start of 2025, and assuming she intends to run for another, her registration as an independent means she will not have to fight win a Democratic primary in order to do so, potentially leading to a three-way race depending on whether the other parties decide to field candidates against her.

However, Arizona has trended Democratic in recent years; Joe Biden won it in 2020, while this year saw her fellow Democratic Senator Mark Kelly re-elected and Democratic secretary of state Katie Hobbs elevated to the governor’s mansion.

Before Ms Sinema’s announcement, the Democrats were relieved that West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin would no longer be the effective deciding vote in the Senate as they try to advance policies on energy, welfare and wages that he has doggedly opposed. Ms Sinema, however, has been almost as much of a problem for the party, particularly when it comes to raising the minimum wage, a key progressive priority.

She also threatened to hold up the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), the party’s crowning legislative achievement of the year, which was negotiated by Mr Manchin and Chuck Schumer after the former sank the Build Back Better package citing an array of disagreements. Ms Sinema’s objection to the IRA was based on her steadfast opposition to closing the so-called “carried interest loophole”, which gives private equity and venture capital income the benefit of a relatively low tax rate. In the end, she was brought on board with the law, which her office described as “Sinema-shaped”.

Arguably her most controversial moment of Mr Biden’s tenure so far came at the start of this year when she refused to back reform of the filibuster so that the Democrats could pass sweeping voting rights legislation with a simple majority. In a floor speech making her position clear, she reiterated her opposition to the restrictive laws being passed in Republican-led states including Texas and Georgia, but also insisted that she would not support “separate actions that worsen the underlying disease of division infecting our country.

“Eliminating the 60-vote threshold on a party line with the thinnest of possible majorities to pass these bills that I support will not guarantee that we prevent demagogues from winning office,” she said – effectively ending her party’s plan to get major legislation on the issue passed before this year’s midterms.

Ms Sinema has at times leaned hard into the resentment directed at her from much of the Democratic establishment and its voter base, which has seen some protesters go so far as to follow her into a public bathroom when she avoided engaging with them. In one particularly memorable incident in April 2021, she shared a photo on Instagram of herself wearing a ring bearing the words “F*** Off”.

However, Ms Sinema has also proven a crucial negotiator on key laws that have passed on a cross-party basis, most notably last year’s trillion-dollar Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill. After its passage, she celebrated it as a triumph of bipartisanship in a sharply divided chamber.

“For months people have been saying, ‘Oh bipartisanship is dead and you can only do things when one party does it alone,’ ” she told the Associated Press at the time. “I have never believed that, and I refuse to accept it, and what we’ve shown today is that that talking point is false.”

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