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Sen. Kyrsten Sinema is leaving the Democratic Party

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Kyrsten Sinema, a United States senator from Arizona, is leaving the Democratic Party. Here's the way she put it in a video she released.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KYRSTEN SINEMA: Registering as an independent and showing up to work with the title of independent is a reflection of who I've always been and it's a reflection of who Arizona is.

INSKEEP: She had sometimes been on a different page with the rest of her party. Sinema's decision shakes up the power dynamic in the closely divided Senate. Democrats did have 51 votes. So do they still? NPR congressional correspondent Deirdre Walsh joins us now. Good morning.

DEIRDRE WALSH, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: First, the why - why would she leave her party now?

WALSH: Well, Sinema told CNN in an interview that she never fit neatly into any party box, and she hasn't really tried. That's been the frustrating thing for Democrats about Senator Sinema. Like West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, Sinema did regularly break with her party. You know, both she and Manchin pushed back on the size and scope of President Biden's big policy agenda. Ultimately, a much smaller health care and climate bill did pass this summer...

INSKEEP: Yeah.

WALSH: ...With all Democratic votes. But in this very choreographed video announcement, Sinema talked about, you know, this is a reflection of who she is, and she says it's not going to change how she votes.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SINEMA: I'm going to show up to work. I'm going to do my best for Arizona. I'm going to continue to deliver results for everyday people. Nothing's going to change for me, and I don't think anything is going to change for Arizona. And I think Arizonans across the state are going to say, yeah, that's the Kyrsten we elected. That's who we sent to D.C.

INSKEEP: OK. There is the question of what happens with Senator Sinema, but also what happens to her former party. Democrats were just celebrating that they had an extra vote in the Senate. But there are independents who have caucused with the Democrats. There are already a couple of independents who do this. Does this change anything, really?

WALSH: Effectively, it means the Democrats will still have this 51-49 Senate majority that they were celebrating with the runoff win in Georgia on Tuesday night. I'm told Senator Sinema notified Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer yesterday. She's going to keep her committee assignments through Democrats. And like you said, there already are these two independents who do regularly caucus with the Democrats and vote with the Democrats for the most part - Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Angus King of Maine.

But Sinema, you know, really already sort of skipped party meetings. She says she will continue to scrutinize but support presidential appointees from President Biden. That's an important thing that some Democrats can still pass this year. You know, Sinema was already an independent in terms of her voting record. She said she wasn't comfortable in a partisan box. She does team up with Republicans. Even this week, she had been working with North Carolina Republican Thom Tillis on an immigration bill. So, you know, she's going to continue to chart her own path. And, you know, we'll sort of see how she votes.

INSKEEP: Well, as much as some Democrats dislike Sinema, they still need her, it seems to me, particularly heading into a difficult Senate election cycle in a couple of years. What about her future?

WALSH: Right. The 2024 election cycle for Senate Democrats is a really rough map - a lot of vulnerable Democrats up in a lot of swing states. The political reality for Sinema - she was already facing a possible primary challenge from Democratic Congressman Ruben Gallego. Progressives have been really angry about her voting record. But Arizona is a swing state, roughly a third Democrat, a third Republican, a third independents. So that may have played into her calculation in terms of whether she could win. She hasn't said whether she will run for reelection. If she does run as an independent, that could leave an opening for a Republican to potentially flip the seat red in 2024.

INSKEEP: Oh, yeah, if Democrats and independents were to split their votes. Deirdre, thanks so much.

WALSH: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Deirdre Walsh. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Deirdre Walsh is the congress editor for NPR's Washington Desk.