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Democratic senator becomes independent, will still caucus with Democrats

By Sarah May on
 December 12, 2022

In an announcement that rocked the upper chamber of Congress last week, Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema declared her intention to leave the Democrat Party and move forward with her legislative career as an independent, as NBC News reports, though the move seems unlikely to alter the body's future balance of power.

The senator's Friday announcement sparked frenzied questions about whether or not she would continue to caucus with Democrats, but as Fox News notes, subsequent comments from the lawmaker suggest that the answer is an an affirmative one.

Sinema's switch

Declaring her intentions via Twitter as well as in a more comprehensive op-ed in the Arizona Republic, Sinema provided her rationale for changing her affiliation.

“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,” Sinema explained.

The 46-year-old legislator, who has regularly incurred the ire of Democrats for not always bending to the will of leadership, continued by saying, “I promised I would never bend to party pressure, and I would stay focused on solving problems and getting things done for everyday Arizonans. My approach is rare in Washington and has upset partisans in both parties.”

“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,” Sinema stated.

Status quo ante?

It was a statement she gave to Politico, however, that provided the strongest possible hint that despite her newly-minted independent status, Sinema is likely to continue caucusing with the Democrats just the same as before.

“I don't anticipate that anything will change about the Senate structure,” said Sinema. “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.”

That, as Fox News noted, would come as a relief to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), as it would provide him with a 51-seat majority in the next Congress, meaning that the Democrats would seize control of the chamber without the need for any tie-breaking votes from Vice President Kamala Harris, something which was required numerous times over the past two years.

If Sinema does continue to caucus with Democrats, the party will also likely enjoy more robust committee representation, will not need to negotiate power-sharing arrangements with Republicans, and will be able to issue subpoenas far more easily, Fox News added.

A senior Democrat aide explained the situation succinctly, telling Fox News, “Since the Senate is organized on a majority basis, Democrats would have more power over committees and legislation if the majority is 51 seats. If it's 50-50, the good news is that nothing changes, but that's also not an optimal place for a party officially in control.”

Dems slam decision

Despite the fact that Sinema's decision will not have any appreciably negative effect on the Democrats' ability to wield control over the Senate, the lawmaker was swiftly assailed by a number of voices from the left flank of her now-former party.

As the New York Post reports, the Arizona Democratic Party issued a statement rebuking Sinema's past refusal to participate in the elimination of the Senate's filibuster rules and for her stance in opposition to higher corporate tax rates.

“As a party, we welcome Independent voters and their perspectives. Senator Sinema may now be registered as an Independent, but she has shown she answers to corporations and billionaires, not Arizonans. Senator Sinema's party registration means nothing if she continues to not listen to her constituents,” the statement read.

The Hill further noted that progressive Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) slammed Sinema's decision, opinining that “people deserve more” from the senator and accusing her of outlining “no goals for Arizonans, no vision, no commitments.”

Rep. Reuben Gallego (D-AZ) is widely viewed as a prospective challenger for Sinema's seat in 2024, and he was equally critical of her departure from the party, saying that she had put “her own interests ahead of getting things done for Arizonans.”

Symbolic, not substantive

Though Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-CO) was among the GOP voices lauding Sinema's declaration, writing on Twitter that she hopes “many more [Democrats] see the light” and do the same, the fact that the switch may well prove far more symbolic than substantive was not lost on the Biden administration.

Reacting to the news out of Arizona, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre dubbed Sinema a “key partner” in achieving the passage of several of the president's policy priorities and confidently suggested, “[w]e have every reason to expect that we will continue to work successfully with her.” Whether that prediction is borne out is something that remains to be seen.