What Sinema’s Independent status means for the Senate


The reverberations from Sen. Kyrsten Sinema’s (Ariz.) announcement on Friday that she has left the Democratic Party and is now an Independent are being felt across the political spectrum but especially in the Senate itself, where lawmakers are evaluating how her decision will change the dynamics of the chamber.

Sen. Raphael Warnock’s (Ga.) runoff victory on Tuesday gave Democrats an anticipated 51-49 majority in the upper chamber, with the one extra vote handing them a significant advantage over the current 50-50 split that ranges from subpoena power to the ability to move nominees through committees more swiftly. 

That bit of breathing room lasted a grand total of two days, with Sinema’s official independence creating potential issues for Democratic leadership — and especially Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (N.Y.) — in their quest to keep the conference united and continue to move President Biden’s agenda. 

“This is the start of a two-year-long headache for Sen. Schumer,” said Jim Manley, a former top aide to the late Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) “I don’t envy what he is going to have to do to keep on board with the Democratic agenda, but as long as he keeps open the line of communication, it could work.”

That work began on Thursday, when Schumer agreed to allow Sinema to keep her committee assignments, saying that will in turn allow Democrats to keep much of their newly gained power.

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

Sinema won’t be the only Independent senator Democrats rely upon. Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Angus King (I-Maine) have reliably caucused with Democrats for years.

And Sinema says she will continue to vote and operate as she has in recent years, for better or, in the eyes of some on the left for worse. According to FiveThirtyEight, the Arizona senator has voted with President Biden 93.1 percent of the time — more than five other Democratic senators.

That in itself is in contrast to others who have changed parties or dropped affiliation in recent memory. Rep. Jefferson Van Drew (N.J.), who was elected as a moderate Democrat, switched parties in 2019 and has voted with the GOP ever since. 

Sinema said on Friday that she would not caucus with Republicans.

“Nothing will change about my values or my behavior,” she told Politico. 

The first round of remarks from top Democrats also indicates they don’t anticipate much of a systematic change either. The White House said in a statement it has “every reason to expect” that President Biden and other officials “will continue to work successfully with her.”

Others in the upper chamber concurred. 

“Sen. Sinema has always had an independent streak,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) told CNN. “I don’t believe this is going to shake things up quite like everyone thinks. … Chuck Schumer is still the majority leader, and we will still be able to get a great number of the things done that we want to get done.”

“Sen. Sinema has been an independent in all intents and purposes,” Klobuchar continued, noting that the Arizona senator doesn’t usually go to the weekly caucus luncheon “except for rare moments where she’s advocating for something she cares about. That’s not going to change either.”

For two years, Sinema has been a thorn in the side of Democrats when it comes to passing the most ambitious items of the party’s agenda. She, in particular, came under fire from progressive forces in the party for her opposition to the Democratic effort to pass the Build Back Better blueprint, a multibillion-dollar social spending package that was at the center of Biden’s wish list, and to weakening the legislative filibuster in order to deal with voting rights legislation. 

In fact, Sinema has gone so far as to say the 60-vote threshold should be reinstated for all nominations, including at the judicial and administration levels.

But she has also been instrumental in negotiating and passing a number of items that have made it to Biden’s desk, including the bipartisan infrastructure law and the gun safety legislation that passed following the mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas. Sinema also ended up supporting the Inflation Reduction Act, the slimmed-down version of the original Build Back Better plan. 

The White House rattled off that list in its own statement about Sinema’s switch. 

“As long as she votes next year to allow the Democrats to take control of the Senate, the rest of the stuff will fall in line,” Manley added. 

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