Sen. Kyrsten Sinema is leaving the Democrats. This doesn’t change anything about their Senate majority, but it is nevertheless a setback for Joe Biden’s administration.
This didn’t really surprise anybody. However, the timing is what’s notable. Exactly three days after Democrat Raphael Warnock won the runoff election in Georgia for the last open seat in the Senate, his colleague Kyrsten Sinema announced her departure from the party. “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,” she said. Her reasoning: She never really fit into a political party. “Showing up to work with the title of Independent is a reflection of who I’ve always been.”
Of course, it’s interesting that this is occurring to her now. In the midst of the Democratic Party’s collective sigh of relief in light of the fact that it lost far fewer seats in the November midterms than feared and was even able to expand its Senate majority, the news has now broken that this majority is not as stable as one might have thought.
Strictly speaking, among the 51 senators who could be considered Democrats in the future Congress to date are also two non-Democrats: The former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders from Vermont was elected as an independent, as was his colleague, Angus King, from Maine. However, the two have caucused with the Democratic Party.
Caucus Discipline Has a Different Status
It’s not so clear in Sinema’s case, and she herself seems to be intentionally leaving up in the air to what extent she will continue to support her former party in the future. She has rarely participated in the Democrats’ caucuses in the past; in the future, unlike Sanders and King, she will likely not attend at all anymore. Nothing will change about the structure of the Senate, she wrote in an op-ed for The Arizona Republic, the biggest newspaper in her home state. However, she also indicated that she sees herself as the sole representative of the political middle in a broken system — and that she will milk this role in the future: “Everyday Americans are increasingly left behind by national parties’ rigid partisanship,” she wrote. Both Republicans and Democrats will keep becoming more extreme, in her view.
She further wrote that she has worked well with representatives from both sides in the past and intends to continue to do so. This is exactly where the problem seems to lie for Democrats — and it is one that they know only too well. Caucus discipline has a different status in the U.S. than in Germany, especially with such slim majorities as Democrats now command in the Senate. In previous years, Sinema voted with her former party in the vast majority of cases. Laws like infrastructure reform were only able to pass because of this. However, the exceptions to this rule were problematic.
When it came to changing the necessary quorum for each vote in the Senate, she refused. Democrats urgently needed this in order to pass election rights reform, for example, which Joe Biden had promised his voters, or in order to codify the right to abortion in federal law after the Supreme Court overruled its past decision. She also did not want to vote for a higher minimum wage and just as little for Biden’s original version of his Build Back Better reforms, which included important social measures such as an extension of child-care benefits.
Unpredictability Equals Power
Because Sinema wants to keep her committee position, she will definitely have to continue cooperating with the Democratic caucus. And as she assured in an interview with Politico, she will also not defect to the other side. This means Republicans remain in the minority either way with 49 seats, even in the individual Senate committees — that was the decisive advantage of that 51st seat that Warnock won in Georgia, which allows Democrats to confirm candidates for important posts in agencies and courts without delays. In the past, Sinema has always cooperated with these nominations, and so far she hasn’t indicated that she intends to change this.
Her departure is nevertheless an unpleasant setback for Biden and his party. By officially withdrawing from caucus discipline, she will become even more unpredictable than before. And unpredictability in slim majorities always means one thing: bargaining power. Republicans will now vie fiercely for her support on each vote. Sinema maintains a friendly relationship with leading Republican Congress members like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
One other person who has recently left Democrats in the lurch far more often than his colleague from Arizona can look forward to even more attention than before. Sen. Joe Manchin also does not want to change the voting rules and blocked Biden’s social, climate and economic reforms for months until only a fragment of them remained. Depending on what Sinema does, for example, if she joins her own vote to the 49 Republican votes, all eyes and efforts will be on Manchin to ensure he does not do the same. And even with his possible reelection in two years in mind, he will likely welcome any further opportunity to gain the upper hand with the Biden administration.
Sinema’s motive for all of this could simply be that she would have hardly any chance of being nominated again by Democrats in the next congressional election in 2024. Her poll numbers are poor, and because of her attitude of refusing to caucus and her large donations from big pharmaceutical companies, she has long had a poor reputation in the party. If she appears as an independent in the future, it will make things hard for Democrats. Instead of being able to defeat her in the party’s primary election with another candidate, they must now fear that in the general election in November 2024 Sinema will pull away a part of the vote and Republicans will win the seat, in a state as important as Arizona no less.
The new year begins for Biden like the old one began: with the prospect of tough, nerve-wracking negotiations. And with certainty: After the election is [the same as] before the election, no matter how well it went.