In the end, Kyrsten Sinema’s defection from the party could have been a lot worse for Democrats.
The Arizona senator’s decision to go independent will reverberate in Arizona and national political circles for months to come as Sinema’s potential reelection approaches. Yet when it comes to the daily operation of the Senate, it seems Democrats will still get something very close to the functional 51-seat majority they assumed they’d won — with perhaps a small asterisk.
In an interview this week, Sinema herself was cagey about how her party switch will affect the daily workings of the Senate. But by Friday afternoon Democrats were feeling OK about the situation, even if Sinema won’t be formally caucusing with them. The 50-50 days are soon going to be behind them.
“My impression is it doesn’t change anything about how the Senate operates, it doesn’t change anything about how Kyrsten operates. All that seems to be changing is the letter next to her name,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said in an interview.
Sinema and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer agreed this week that the Arizona independent would keep her committee assignments, a notable pact that essentially guarantees that Democrats will have majorities on committees. When all is said and done, it’s likely that Democrats will enjoy one-seat edges on all committee panels, according to two congressional aides familiar with the matter.
That’s not a huge margin for error, but it frees the party from some procedural obstacles Republicans used for the past two years. The Democratic majority will be able to to invoke subpoena powers and move nominees and legislation more easily through committees, provided its members stick together. Plus, Democrats can put other logistical headaches behind them, like the need to hold floor votes to proceed on tied committee nominees as well as rely on Vice President Kamala Harris for tie-breaking votes.
In characteristically sunny fashion, Schumer put a positive spin on Sinema’s decision. He declared he is “looking forward to a productive session in the new Democratic majority Senate. We will maintain our new majority on committees, exercise our subpoena power, and be able to clear nominees without discharge votes.”
Tougher decisions await. If Sinema runs for reelection, Schumer will have to decide whether to use Senate Democrats’ campaign arm to assist her in a bid for a second term or remain neutral. Or perhaps the party will decide to support a Democratic nominee as she runs as an independent. Another possibility: That she doesn’t run at all. She’s not saying. She also skipped the party’s leadership elections on Thursday.
What Sinema will say, for now, is she doesn’t anticipate the Senate “structure” changing. And that’s good news for Democrats.
With Republicans taking the House, Schumer will be heavily focused on confirming lifetime judicial nominees and filling out the rest of President Joe Biden’s administration over the next two years. Schumer, the White House and Sinema herself see little changing in the way those votes shake out. Democrats need a simple majority to move those nominees, and it looks like they’ll have it a lot of the time — without needing Harris’ help.
Sinema pointed out in an interview that “in more cases than not” she had voted to confirm Biden’s nominees, “even those with whom I have a political disagreement.” She’s voted with Biden’s position 93 percent of the time, according to 538, and many of those votes are on nominations.
“Because in my opinion, it’s not my job to say whether or not I politically agree with the nominee, it is my job to determine whether or not they are qualified to do the job,” she said.
Legislation will be tougher. The House will be Republican and the Senate Democratic, with a presidential race heating up and both parties gearing up for another bout for control of Congress. That means major legislation will be difficult to pass through both chambers, but Sinema’s going to try anyway and attempt to continue her approach to cross-party negotiations that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell calls the “most effective” he’s seen from a first-term senator.
Sinema is a central part of a rotating cast of centrists that have cut deals on new infrastructure, gun safety and marriage equality laws. Sinema’s also worked with Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) to raise the minimum wage and is in negotiations with Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) on an immigration package.
She calls her work with Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) on that infrastructure proposal a “perfect example of how I approach legislating” — seeing what’s available at the moment rather than concentrating on just one or two issues for years and years. She’s going to keep trying, even if the odds only grow more difficult.
“A key to success in this environment is forming meaningful relationships based on trust with other people. And that has helped me be successful. I don’t anticipate any of that will change at all,” she said.
Marianne LeVine contributed to this report.