Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema announced Friday that she changed her affiliation from the Democratic Party to independent. But she indicated that this move would not functionally change the new Senate's 51-49 Democratic majority.
"Like a lot of Arizonans, I have never fit perfectly in either national party," Sinema wrote in an Arizona Republic op-ed. "Becoming an independent won't change my work in the Senate; my service to Arizona remains the same."
While Sinema did not promise to formally caucus with the Democratic majority on Friday, she indicated she plans to continue to get her committee assignments from the Democrats and told Politico, "I don't anticipate that anything will change about the Senate structure." She also explicitly told the paper that she will not join the Republican caucus.
If she is counted as a member of a 51-49 Democratic majority or forms her own bloc in a 50-49-1 Democratic majority, control of the Senate will not be impacted and Democrats will still likely hold an outright majority on committees and the Senate floor.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer confirmed that Sinema would keep her committee assignments with the Democratic caucus.
"I believe she's a good and effective Senator and am looking forward to a productive session in the new Democratic majority Senate," he said in a press statement. "We will maintain our new majority on committees, exercise our subpoena power, and be able to clear nominees without discharge votes."
Two other current senators — Maine's Angus King and Vermont's Bernie Sanders — identify as independents but caucus with the Democrats and get their committee assignments as Democrats.
In the 2022 midterm elections, Democrats held every single Senate seat they controlled and gained an open Republican seat in Pennsylvania. This gave their caucus a 51 seat majority, rather than the current Senate's 50-50 split, where Vice President Kamala Harris breaks ties in favor of the Democrats.
Sinema has clashed with most of the Democratic Party in the past on issues such as filibuster reform and raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour. She has voted with President Joe Biden more than 93 percent of the time, according to FiveThirtyEight.
In a statement, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre praised Sinema as a "key partner on the historic legislation President Biden has championed over the last 20 months," and observed, "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 move could have ramifications for Arizona's 2024 Senate election.
Sinema has not said whether she plans to seek another term. If she had remained a Democrat, she may have faced a primary challenge from Democratic Rep. Ruben Gallego, who has frequently criticized her record. As an independent, she can run in the general election without participating in a party primary.
The last Democratic senator to leave the party to become an independent was Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, in 2006.
In 2003, the Hartford Courant covered an anti-Lieberman protest organized by Sinema during his presidential campaign visit to Arizona.
"He's a shame to Democrats," Sinema, then a social worker, told the paper. "I don't even know why he's running. He seems to want to get Republicans voting for him — what kind of strategy is that?"
Reprinted with permission from American Independent.