US President Joe Biden awoke on Friday morning to learn that the Democrats’ hard-fought Senate majority of 51 will not actually be there in practice when the new make-up of the US Congress convenes for the first time in January, following the announcement of Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema that she is abandoning the Democratic Party in order to register as an independent.
Sinema laid out her reasons for doing so in an article published in The Arizona Republic: “I have joined the growing numbers of Arizonans who reject party politics by declaring my independence from the broken partisan system in Washington. Like a lot of Arizonans, I have never fit perfectly in either national party. Becoming an independent won’t change my work in the Senate; my service to Arizona remains the same.”
After Sinema’s announcement, the White House sought to play down her decision. Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre noted during a brief statement that Sinema had been “a key partner on some of the historic legislation President Biden has championed over the last 20 months,” adding: “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.”
The desertion of the Arizona senator adds even more value to the seat eventually won in Georgia by Raphael Warnock earlier this week following a runoff against Republican candidate Herschel Walker. Biden stressed the importance of strengthening the Democratic majority in the Senate throughout the midterm campaign, not least because his grouping already contained two fractious members who made it difficult for him to move forward with his projects: Sinema herself and Joe Manchin, senator for West Virginia. Theirs were the last two votes that Biden secured for his star bill, the Inflation Reduction Act, and then only in exchange for relevant concessions.
The Democrats already have two other senators registered as independents: Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Angus King of Maine. However, both have close ties to the Democratic congressional caucus and are considered to be Democratic senators in all but name. Sinema has not yet confirmed that she will become part of the same grouping but her words seem to suggest the opposite. She has however said she will not be aligning with the Republicans.
Sinema was elected as a senator for the first time in 2018 and her seat will not be up for renewal until the 2024 presidential elections, when it seems unlikely she will be re-elected. Over the past two years, she has struck a discordant note with Democratic priorities in the Senate by blocking some initiatives along with Manchin, leaving several of Biden’s projects on the chamber floor despite the Democrats holding a de facto majority on the basis of Vice President Kamala Harris’ tie-breaking vote.
“This Senate seat belongs to Arizona”
Following the midterm elections last November, the Democrats lost majority control of the House of Representatives. In January that will pass to the Republicans, who secured a majority of 222 seats to 213. In the Senate, the Democrats had secured a narrow advantage of 51 seats after picking up Pennsylvania and retaining all the other seats that were up for grabs, including Georgia. If Sinema holds to her refusal to caucus with the Republicans, the Democrats will still enjoy their narrow advantage in the upper chamber but her decision will come as a blow to Biden after almost two years of a 50-50 split that stymied several of the president’s key legislative objectives.
“This Senate seat doesn’t belong to Democratic or Republican bosses in Washington. It doesn’t belong to one party or the other, and it doesn’t belong to me,” Sinema’s op-ed concluded. “It belongs to Arizona, which is far too special a place to be defined by extreme partisans and ideologues. It’s an honor to represent the state I love so much in the US Senate. And while I do, I pledge to continue doing exactly what I promised – to be an independent voice for Arizona.”
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