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Democratic Senator Kyrsten Sinema goes independent: how does that impact Joe Biden’s party in the US Congress?

In the Senate, Kyrsten Sinema is considered a centrist. She now formally joins two other independents, Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Angus King of Maine, in the chamber. Both Sanders and King caucus with the Democrats.

Senator Kyrsten Sinema is a Democrat from Arizona. (Al Drago/Pool via Reuters)
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Days after victory in the Georgia runoff gave the Democratic Party a 51st seat and a bigger majority in the United States Senate, Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona has announced she is leaving the party and becoming an independent to protest “the broken partisan system in Washington”.

The decision by Sinema will not significantly change the way the Senate works given the narrow cushion provided to the Democrats by Raphael Warnock’s victory in Georgia.

But it further increases uncertainty around her support for President Joe Biden’s agenda, and will force the Senate majority leader, Chuck Schumer of New York, to look for ways around potential complications that may arise.

Who is Sen. Kyrsten Sinema?

Sinema, 46, entered the US Senate for the first time in January 2019. She had earlier served as Arizona State Representative from 2005 to 2011, as State Senator from 2011-12, and in the US House of Representatives from 2013-19.

Sinema started out with the Arizona Green Party before joining the Democratic Party in the state in 2004. In her early years in politics, she was a critic of capitalism and the death penalty in America, and an opponent of the war on terror. She has consistently championed progressive causes such as LGBT rights, and is the first openly bisexual woman to be elected to the chambers of Congress.

In the Senate, Sinema is considered a centrist, and following her announcement on Friday (December 9), she formally joins two other independents, Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Angus King of Maine, in the chamber. Both Sanders and King caucus with the Democrats.

Was her announcement unexpected?

It wasn’t. An explainer in Vox said her decision to register as an independent seemed “obvious to many followers of national politics or anyone who has followed Sinema’s career”. The explainer pointed out that she has never been the conventional “team player”, and has frustrated both Republicans and Democrats with her apparent caprice and flexible ideology that is “more socially liberal than Republicans, and more fiscally conservative than most Democrats”.

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Sinema told CNN that she has “never fit neatly into any party box”, and removing herself from the “partisan structure” was “not only…true to who I am and how I operate”, but would “also…provide a place of belonging for many folks across the state and the country who also are tired of the partisanship”.

A report in The New York Times noted that Sinema, who casts herself as a bipartisan deal-maker is “often seen on the Republican side of the [Senate] floor, conversing with and lobbying Republicans” and “has also been assiduously courted by Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader”.

Along with Senator Joe Manchin, Democrat of West Virginia, she has resisted some major Democratic priorities on fiscal and tax policy, and the two Senators “killed Democratic efforts to weaken the filibuster and push through new voting rights legislation this year”, the report said.

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However, The NYT said, “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”, and “has been a reliable vote for the Biden administration’s judicial and executive branch nominees”.

FILE – President Joe Biden, with a bipartisan group of senators, speaks June 24, 2021, outside the White House in Washington. From left are, Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, Biden, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz. The decision by Sinema to leave the Democratic Party raised the prospect of a tumultuous three-way race in one of the most politically competitive states in the U.S. It set off a scramble among potential Democratic and Republican candidates to assess whether they could win their party’s nomination. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)

What impact will her decision have in the Senate?

Not much, according to media reports in the United States. While Sinema has not said specifically that she would continue to caucus with the Democrats, The NYT report said she had asked Schumer to let her keep her Senate committee positions — which suggests that she, like the other independents Sanders and King, would stay aligned with the party, and allow it to retain its 51-49 majority in the chamber. In addition, the Democrats have Vice President Kamala Harris’s casting vote.

Sinema told Politico that she did not “anticipate that anything will change about the Senate structure”. “I intend to show up to work, do the same work that I always do. I just intend to show up to work as an independent.”

In a statement, Schumer said: “She asked me to keep her committee assignments and I agreed.” He added that Sinema had “always been” an independent, and that he was “looking forward to a productive session in the new Democratic majority Senate”.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said: “We understand that her decision to register as an independent in Arizona does not change the new Democratic majority control of the Senate”. She said there was “every reason to expect that we will continue to work successfully with her”.

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How much influence Sinema has in Congress will also depend on her equations with the incoming Republican majority in the House next year. The Vox report noted that the likely next Republican House speaker, Kevin McCarthy, has worked in the House with Sinema before, and he told Politico, “We’re friends.” But his slim majority, Vox said, will likely pull the House in the retributive direction that Sinema has said she opposes.

Where will the impact, if any, then lie?

There will be an impact in Arizona, where Sinema has upset the Democratic Party, and will face difficulty in the primary ahead of 2024 when she will likely seek re-election. Her opponents in the state said they would work to ensure she is replaced by another candidate.

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“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, The NYT reported. “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.”

The report quoted Representative Ruben Gallego, a Democratic House member from Arizona and a potential candidate for Sinema’s seat, as saying, “Unfortunately, Senator Sinema is once again putting her own interests ahead of getting things done for Arizonans.”

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Polls have attested to Sinema’s lack of popularity. In a recent poll by Civiqs, only 7 per cent of Arizona Democrats approved of her, compared with 27 per cent of Republicans and 29 per cent of independents in the state.

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Is Sinema’s move to strike out on her own unusual?

Party switching is not unheard-of in the Senate, The NYT report said. It recalled the example of Senator Joseph I Lieberman of Connecticut who lost the Democratic primary in 2006, ran and won as an independent, but continued to caucus with majority Democrats. Also, Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania left the Republican Party in 2009, after joining with Democrats in backing some initiatives of the Obama administration, but was later defeated in a Democratic primary, The NYT said.

First published on: 10-12-2022 at 12:30 IST
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