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White House: Sen. Sinema still key partner despite split on Democratic majority

By Sarah May
|
December 14, 2022

Though Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema certainly sent shockwaves last week by announcing her departure from the Democrat Party and registering as an independent, the Biden White House has downplayed the significance of the switch, declaring the majority effectively unchanged by the move, as Fox News reports.

The renegade lawmaker revealed her decision via Twitter and also in a lengthier op-ed penned for the Arizona Republic, prompting much speculation about how it might affect the fortunes of her now-former party going into the new Congress come January.

Biden unbothered

Though losing such a high-profile party member might seem to be a jarring development for any sitting president, the Biden White House swiftly issued a statement in the wake of Sinema's declaration emphasizing its lack of concern over any negative legislative ramifications.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre articulated the administration's reaction to the turn of events, saying, “Senator Sinema has been a key partner on some of the historic legislation President Biden has championed over the last 20 months, 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.”

Jean-Pierre added, “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.”

That expectation on the part of the White House appeared justified over the weekend, given Sinema's insistence that she had no plans to caucus with Republicans, as Fox News noted separately.

“I don't 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,” Sinema stated.

Negligible effects predicted

Sinema's apparent plan to remain part of the Democrat caucus was certainly welcome news to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), as such a scenario would provide him with a 51-seat majority with which to work come January.

Under those circumstances, Democrats would enjoy full control of the upper chamber without having to rely on tie-breaking votes from Vice President Kamala Harris, something that occurred more than once over the course of the past two years when the split was 50-50 between her party and the GOP.

Indeed, as a senior Democrat congressional aide explained to 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.”

Mixed reactions emerge

The Biden administration's pronounced lack of alarm over Sinema's decision was echoed by a number of voices on the left, including Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT), who discussed the situation with Chuck Todd on NBC's Meet the Press Sunday.

“Look, I was surprised she made the change, but functionally, I don't think that changes the thing. I think we're going to continue doing the same thing that we were doing, whether she was an independent or part of the Democratic caucus, because she's going to continue to caucus with the Democrats,” Tester explained.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, himself an independent, seemed to shrug off Sinema's switch, though he did indicate his suspicion that it was prompted by potential challengers for her seat from within Arizona.

“The Democrats there are not all that enthusiastic about somebody who helped sabotage some of the most important legislation that protects the interests of working families – voting rights and so forth,” Sanders remarked on CNN. “But for us, I think nothing much has changed in terms of the functioning of the U.S. Senate,” he added.

Despite the efforts of some on the left to minimize the senator's departure from the party, as Fox News noted, ABC political director Rick Klein portrayed it as a “gut punch with real implications for how [Democrats] govern and how they campaign.”

“A natural extension”

Though her colleagues clearly have their own takes on what spurred Sinema to take her leave from Democrat party and the impact her choice may have, the senator herself said it was simply a function of principle.

“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,” Sinema said.

Sinema declared her unwillingness to “bend to party pressure” something that is “rare in Washington,” and in the wake of her departure, many are now wondering whether Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) – also known for frequently throwing a wrench into liberal legislative priorities – may follow suit and bolt as well.