Kyrsten Sinema is becoming an independent, but she's expected to keep her committee assignments.
That means she will likely end up functionally remaining part of Democrats' new 51-seat majority.
But the decision means she'll avoid what likely would've been a bruising Democratic primary campaign.
Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona is now a registered independent. But if she wants to keep her committee assignments — where she can continue to help shape legislation she cares about — she'll likely have to continue to play ball with Senate Democrats.
That means her decision may be as much about side-stepping what was expected to be a tough Senate primary campaign in 2024 as it is a principled stand against partisan politics. And while it changes the Democratic vote margin on paper, it's unlikely to significantly shift the balance of power in the Senate in the wake of the party's midterm victories.
In a statement on Friday, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer made clear that the party's functional 51-49 majority next year would remain.
"Kyrsten is independent; that's how she's always been," said Schumer. "We will maintain our new majority on committees, exercise our subpoena power, and be able to clear nominees without discharge votes."
As a result of bucking her party over the last two years — voting against social spending, dooming a $15 minimum wage, and refusing to help kill the Senate's 60-vote filibuster — Sinema's approval ratings are underwater with Arizona Democrats. Arizona Democrats voted to censure her for supporting the filibuster and Democratic Rep. Ruben Gallego of Arizona was widely expected to launch a primary bid against her.
"Whether in the Marine Corps or in Congress, I have never backed down from fighting for Arizonans," Gallego said in a statement on Friday regarding Sinema's decision. "And at a time when our nation needs leadership most, Arizona deserves a voice that won't back down in the face of struggle. Unfortunately, Senator Sinema is once again putting her own interests ahead of getting things done for Arizonans."
Sinema running for re-election as an independent candidate could make for a chaotic 2024 Senate election in Arizona. If Democrats also field a candidate, they could split the vote with Sinema, handing Republicans a win in the purple state.
In interviews about her decision, Sinema signaled that little will change about her work as a senator, aside from her party label.
"I'm going to still come to work and hopefully serve on the same committees I've been serving on," Sinema told CNN in an interview.
"I don't anticipate that anything will change about the Senate structure," she also told Politico, deferring to Schumer on the exact mechanics of how her decision will affect partisan control.
Sinema also said that she does not intend to caucus with Republicans in the chamber — though she declined in both interviews to say whether she'll formally caucus with Democrats — and that both her values and behavior as a senator are unlikely to change following the decision. Politico reported that she won't attend weekly Democratic caucus meetings, but that she rarely does that now.
"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," said White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre in a statement on Friday.
Schumer said in his statement that Sinema "asked me to keep her committee assignments and I agreed," calling her a "good and effective Senator." As Senate majority leader, Schumer has control of who serves on committees in the chamber.
Sinema informed the majority leader of her decision on Thursday, according to a Senate Democratic aide.
'I don't think it was Congressman Gallego'
Two other independent senators caucus with Democrats. Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Angus King of Maine, though often counted as Democrats by political observers, are technically independent.
Currently, Sinema serves on five committees in the chamber. Committees are a key avenue for lawmakers to influence policy, and the senator has long pointed to her work in the Senate as the reason for Democrats — as well as non-Democrats — to support her.
But don't expect Sinema or her allies to admit that her decision is about political calculation.
"I don't think it was Congressman Gallego," John LaBombard, her former communications director, told Insider on Friday morning. "You know, her voting record would be really different if she was susceptible to political pressure."
Asked whether Sinema's decision is an acknowledgement that she couldn't win a primary, LaBombard said "no one gets a cakewalk to getting elected in Arizona." He stressed that Sinema herself has not made a formal announcement about 2024, and said he personally doesn't know if she'll run for re-election.
He also said that there wasn't a "particular instance or a particular event, inciting event, that led to this decision," calling it a "natural evolution that you can chart if you look at her entire time in the US House and the US Senate."
"What really animates her is this sort of convener role, where she can find the sweet spot of bipartisan compromise on any issue area to try to get something done," said LaBombard. "She's had remarkable success at that, as well as other colleagues in both parties who've worked with her."
Sinema has been heavily involved in several high-profile bipartisan efforts that have yielded legislation over the last two years, including the bipartisan infrastructure bill, a set of new gun restrictions, and the recent effort to pass new protections for same-sex and interracial marriage.
LaBombard said that Sinema told her staff about her decision in advance, and said he hasn't heard any negative reaction so far. "The folks I talked to feel pretty positive about this," he said.
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