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How Sen. Kyrsten Sinema's decision to register as an independent affects the Senate

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

This week, the news of Democratic Senator Raphael Warnock winning reelection in the Georgia runoff seemed to solidify a slightly more comfortable two-seat majority in the Senate to push through Democrats', including President Biden's, agenda. So how might a big political announcement today shift that calculus?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KYRSTEN SINEMA: I promised them I would be an independent voice from our state.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

That is Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema announcing her exit from the Democratic Party. She is changing her affiliation to independent. Well, this news might be unsurprising given the reputation Sinema has cultivated over recent years. She and West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin's more moderate stances have frequently alienated their caucus in an evenly divided Senate, a Senate where just one vote might stall or derail a bill. And it has.

CHANG: And she is facing criticism from Arizona's Democratic Party, who in a statement said Sinema's new affiliation, quote, "means nothing if she continues to not listen to her constituents." But the reaction from national Democratic leaders so far today is pretty meh (ph). The White House and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer have said they don't expect their relationship with Sinema to change.

KELLY: And neither does Sinema, as she explained in a blitz of interviews today, including to Mark Brodie, co-host of "The Show" on our member station KJZZ in Arizona.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "THE SHOW")

SINEMA: This is really a natural extension of the work I've been doing in the United States Senate for the last number of years. So I'm not sure this should come as a surprise to anyone. You know, when I ran for the Senate back in 2018, I promised Arizonans I'd be an independent voice for our state. That's exactly what I've done. And so today's decision and announcement is just a reflection of that.

MARK BRODIE, BYLINE: How do you envision this working sort of mechanically in the Senate? Like, do you envision yourself sort of following the Bernie Sanders, Angus King model? Do you envision charting a different kind of course?

SINEMA: I'm not interested in following the footsteps of anyone else. You know, Arizona is a special state, and we've always been a very independent people. And I expect that the way I behave in the Senate, which is to show up to work every day, working hard for the people of our state, that won't change at all.

BRODIE: There are certain things, though, that have to happen that really sort of only happen in terms of, like, finding out about bills and hearing what colleagues have to say, like, in sort of that party environment. Aren't there like - are you still interested in doing any of that?

SINEMA: Well, Mark, I have been incredibly effective at advancing Arizona's priorities and our nation's priorities. And I've been able to do that because of my deep relationships based on trust with my colleagues of all political persuasions. That's not going to change at all. So, I mean, you and I both know Arizonans don't really care at all about the inner mechanics of Washington, D.C. What they care about are the results. And I expect that not much will change at all, for me or for them, when it comes to delivering results for Arizona.

BRODIE: Does this affect in any way your decision of whether or not or how to seek reelection in two years?

SINEMA: You know, I'm not at all focused on campaigns or elections right now. We've got so much work left to do in the United States Senate. As you know, and Arizona's - Arizonans know, I've got a lot on my plate right now working on immigration, working to get a budget that works for our state and for our country and ensuring that our men and women in the military are taken care of and paid appropriately. So I'm 100% focused on that work. That's exactly what I'm doing now, and it's what they can expect from me moving forward.

CHANG: That was Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema talking about her change in party affiliation with member station KJZZ's Mark Brodie. And we'll have more on the possible 2024 stakes of this change coming up elsewhere in the show. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lauren Hodges is an associate producer for All Things Considered. She joined the show in 2018 after seven years in the NPR newsroom as a producer and editor. She doesn't mind that you used her pens, she just likes them a certain way and asks that you put them back the way you found them, thanks. Despite years working on interviews with notable politicians, public figures, and celebrities for NPR, Hodges completely lost her cool when she heard RuPaul's voice and was told to sit quietly in a corner during the rest of the interview. She promises to do better next time.
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.
Padmananda Rama
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.