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Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema leaves Democratic Party, registers as independent

Washington — Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona announced Friday that she’s registered as an independent but doesn’t plan to caucus with Republicans, ensuring Democrats will retain their narrow majority in the Senate.

Sinema, who has modeled her political approach on the renegade style of the late Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and has frustrated Democratic colleagues at times with her overtures to Republicans and opposition to Democratic priorities, said she was “declaring my independence from the broken partisan system in Washington.”

“I know some people might be a little bit surprised by this, but actually, I think it makes a lot of sense,” Sinema told CNN on Thursday. “I’ve never fit neatly into any party box. I’ve never really tried. I don’t want to.”

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Senate Homeland and Governmental Affairs nominations hearing, in Washington
Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, a Democrat from Arizona, during a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing on Feb. 1, 2022. 

Al Drago / Pool via Reuters

A Democratic aide told CBS News Sinema told Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., of her decision Thursday.

The first-term senator wrote in the Arizona Republic that she came into office pledging “to be independent and work with anyone to achieve lasting results. I committed I would not demonize people I disagreed with, engage in name-calling, or get distracted by political drama. I promised I would never bend to party pressure.”

Her office also posted a video announcement.

She wrote that her approach is “rare in Washington and has upset partisans in both parties” but “has delivered lasting results for Arizona.”

Democrats were set to hold a 51-49 edge in the Senate come January after the victory Tuesday by Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock in Georgia’s runoff election. The Senate is now split 50-50, with Vice President Kamala Harris the tiebreaking vote for Democrats.

Sinema told Politico in an interview that she won’t caucus with Republicans and that she plans to keep voting as she has since winning election to the Senate in 2018 after three House terms. “Nothing will change about my values or my behavior,” she said.

Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar told CNN, “I don’t believe this is going to shake things up quite like everyone thinks,” but she suggested, “It may change things with Arizona politics.” Klobuchar also said that already, Sinema “tends not to go to the caucus meeting…except for rare moments where she’s advocating for something she cares about. That’s not going to change either.”

A White House official told CBS News “this doesn’t change much aside from her reelection path.”

Separately, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Sinema “has been a key partner on some of the historic legislation President Biden has championed over the last 20 months, from the American Rescue Plan to the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, from the Inflation Reduction Act to the CHIPS and Science Act, from the PACT Act to the Gun Safety Act to the Respect for Marriage Act, and more. 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.”

Sinema is facing reelection in 2024 and is likely to be matched up with a well-funded primary challenger after angering much of the Democratic base by blocking or watering down progressive priorities such as a minimum wage increase or President Biden’s big social spending initiatives. She hasn’t said whether she plans to seek another term.

Sinema’s most prominent potential primary challenger is Rep. Ruben Gallego, who has a long history of feuding with her.

“When politicians are more focused on denying the opposition party a victory than they are on improving Americans’ lives, the people who lose are everyday Americans,” Sinema wrote. “That’s why I have joined the growing numbers of Arizonans who reject party politics by declaring my independence from the broken partisan system in Washington. I registered as an Arizona independent.”