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Kyrsten Sinema: Joe Biden and the Democrats Worst Nightmare?

U.S. President Joe Biden. Image: Creative Commons.
U.S. President Joe Biden.

Democrats were jubilant this week when their victory in the Georgia Senate runoff gave them an outright majority in the upper chamber of Congress after two years of needing Vice President Kamala Harris’ tie-breaking vote to maintain control.

By week’s end Sen. Kyrsten Sinema dropped a bombshell that made the celebration short-lived: she was leaving the Democratic Party to register as an independent.

“ This Senate seat doesn’t belong to Democratic or Republican bosses in Washington,” she wrote in the Arizona Republic as she announced her decision. “It doesn’t belong to one party or the other, and it doesn’t belong to me. It belongs to Arizona, which is far too special a place to be defined by extreme partisans and ideologues.” 

This sounds worse for Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer than it is if Sinema continues to caucus with Democrats and vote more than 90 percent of the time with Biden. Sens. Bernie Sanders and Angus King are both independents, but they both vote to let Democrats organize the Senate and for liberal legislation.

Sinema hasn’t pulled a Jim Jeffords — yet.

But if this is only the beginning of Sinema exercising her independence and distancing herself from the Democratic brand before seeking reelection in 2024, it could create headaches for Biden and Schumer for the next two years.

Sinema was always one of progressives’ two least favorite Democratic senators. But unlike Sen. Joe Manchin, whose state of West Virginia twice voted for Donald Trump by 40 points, can’t realistically be primaried from the left without sacrificing the seat, probably for decades. Sinema conceivably could have been — until this move.

Either way, it was a reminder of how fragile the Democrats’ Senate majority remains even after defying expectations in the midterm elections. 

Manchin and Sinema oppose changes to the legislative filibuster. Republicans still easily have the votes to filibuster most legislation. And without control of the House, the budget reconciliation process — the maneuver the Democrats used to pass their two biggest spending bills on a partisan basis without fear of a Republican filibuster — is a nonstarter.

Democrats didn’t gain enough Senate seats to force these changes on Sinema and Manchin. And given the 2024 Senate map, which tilts heavily toward Republicans, they may no longer really want to.

Judicial confirmations and filling executive branch vacancies will remain possible, and Democrats look poised to gain the power to hold their own Senate hearings as counterprogramming to whatever Republicans plan in the House.

But the more partisan elements of Biden’s legislative agenda look dead, and Sinema hasn’t exactly breathed new life into them.

In addition to a left-wing Democratic primary challenger, Sinema had to have some concerns about a Republican rebound. A flawed candidate came within 5 points of knocking off her Democratic colleague Sen. Mark Kelly and she would be running in a presidential election year.

Maybe, given the midterm results, Republicans will blow it in the next election too. But there’s no guarantee of that, and Sen. Raphael Warnock — who won a full term by less than a point — only gives Democrats so much breathing room.

At the very least, Democrats are going to have to spend two years courting their least reliable senators before they face voters in states that are redder than most in their caucus. And the 2024 election cycle began the day the Georgia Senate race was called.

Before the midterms, Manchin offered a good example of how to maximize influence in a closely divided Senate. Arlen Specter’s flip to give Democrats a filibuster-proof majority under Barack Obama was a test case of how this can fail. Sinema was surely watching.

One of the problems Democrats had during the first two years of Biden’s term is that they had nominal control of everything but nowhere near the kind of effective majorities needed to fulfill the progressive wishlist many of them had promised their voters.

Republicans taking back the House while Democrats appear to have padded their numbers in the Senate partially solves this problem — but only partially. Sinema is no Republican, no matter what her most liberal detractors say. But she has her own interests and agenda. She just reminded Democrats in Washington they may not always be the same as Biden’s.

Expert Biography: A 19FortyFive Contributing Editor, James Antle III is the Washington Examiner’s politics editor. He was previously managing editor of the Daily Caller, associate editor of the American Spectator, and Editor of the American Conservative. He is the author of Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?

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W. James Antle III is the Washington Examiner's politics editor. He was previously managing editor of the Daily Caller, associate editor of the American Spectator, and senior writer for the American Conservative. He is the author of Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?