Kyrsten Sinema, a centrist senator from Arizona, is leaving the Democratic party, in a blow to Joe Biden and his party just after a successful midterm election in which they added an extra seat to their majority in the upper chamber of Congress.
Sinema announced her decision in an article in the Arizona Republic newspaper on Friday, saying she would no longer register as a Democrat but as an independent.
“While Arizonans don’t all agree on the issues, we are united in our values of hard work, common sense and independence,” Sinema wrote.
“We make our own decisions, using our own judgment and lived experiences to form our beliefs. We don’t line up to do what we’re told, automatically subscribe to whatever positions the national political parties dictate or view every issue through labels that divide us,” she continued.
Sinema’s move will shatter some of the Democrats’ buoyant mood after Raphael Warnock, a Democratic senator in Georgia, secured re-election after a run-off contest in the southern state on Tuesday, giving Democrats a 51 to 49 majority in the Senate for the next two years. Sinema is not switching to the Republican party so her decision does not alter that balance in practice: Democrats will still be able to control key committees and set the legislative agenda in the upper chamber of Congress.
However, Sinema’s departure from the Democratic party will make its control of the Senate more tenuous. She has been a thorn in the side of Biden and Chuck Schumer, the Senate majority leader, for the past two years — chiefly when she opposed an increase in individual and corporate income taxes to pay for Biden’s sweeping economic policies.
But after forcing the president to water down some of his legislation, she ended up supporting many of his landmark bills, and played a key role in negotiating last year’s bipartisan infrastructure law.
Sinema has also supported Biden’s executive branch and cabinet appointments, as well as his judicial nominations, which may be the main focus of his legislative agenda given Republicans narrowly recaptured control of the House of Representatives in the midterm elections.
Chuck Schumer, the Senate majority leader, said he had agreed to a request from Sinema to keep her committee assignments, including on the powerful banking committee, and the Democratic majority would be little affected. “We will maintain our new majority on committees, exercise our subpoena power, and be able to clear nominees without discharge votes,” Schumer said.
Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary, responded to Sinema’s decision on Friday by saying she had been a “key partner” on some of Biden’s biggest legislative achievements over the past 20 months.
“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,” Jean-Pierre said.
Sinema has not discussed her plans for 2024 when her term in the Senate is due to expire. She was facing a high likelihood of a challenge from the left in the Democratic primary in her state, which may have made a re-election difficult from within the party.
However, a run as an independent would present its own difficulties for Sinema. Mark Kelly, the other Arizona senator, won re-election as a Democrat last month over Blake Masters, a Republican backed by Donald Trump, by a fairly comfortable margin.
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