Days after Democrats won a Senate race in Georgia and secured 51 seats in the Senate, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (AZ) announced she’s leaving the Democratic Party to become an independent, spurring mixed reactions from her colleagues.
Sinema, along with Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), has drawn the ire of progressives for stymieing the more ambitious elements of President Joe Biden’s agenda, helping tank Build Back Better earlier this year and opposing Democratic efforts to weaken the filibuster — an obstacle to getting liberal priorities passed in the 50-50 Senate. But the two centrists have also been key to getting legislation passed, and her vote has allowed party leaders to enact sweeping legislation such as the Inflation Reduction Act.
Despite changing parties, it appears Sinema will caucus with the Democrats next year, meaning the party will still have an outright majority in the upper chamber, and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said she would retain her committee assignments. The continued importance of her vote was underscored Friday by senior Democrats’ reaction to the move.
The White House and Schumer downplayed the possibility that Sinema’s decision would materially change their relationships with her.
Schumer praised Sinema as a “good and effective senator” in a statement and said he is “looking forward to a productive session in the new Democratic majority Senate.”
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre echoed Schumer’s remarks, praising her contributions to legislation such as infrastructure, gun safety, and same-sex marriage.
“Sen. Sinema has been a key partner on some of the historic legislation President Biden has championed over the last 20 months,” Jean-Pierre said. “We have every reason to expect that we will continue to work successfully with her.”
Sinema teamed up with Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) to negotiate gun safety legislation this year. Murphy said he wasn’t surprised about the decision given Sinema’s willingness to buck the party line.
“I take Kyrsten at her word that this doesn’t change how she votes and doesn’t change anything about her values or beliefs. She’s always been an independent thinker,” he told the Washington Post. “This seems like this changes the letter next to her name and not much else.”
Progressive Democrats have been quick to criticize Sinema. Ahead of her recent announcement, she was already facing the potential of a primary challenge from Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-AZ). If she decides to run for a second term in 2024, her status as an independent will enable her to bypass a primary with Gallego or another more progressive lawmaker. Should Sinema decide to run as an independent who caucuses with Democrats, a Democratic candidate in the race would threaten to split the vote and hand the seat to Republicans.
Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) called Sinema’s decision disappointing and accused her of aligning with wealthy and corporate interests.
“This is a predictable outcome for Senator Sinema as she has entirely separated herself from any semblance of representing hard working and struggling Arizonans,” he said in a statement.
“This isn’t about the party this is about your pharma donors! Stop lying!” Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-NY) tweeted, adding, “You were never a Democrat anyways.”