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Politics chat: What Sinema's departure means for Democrats; Congress faces a budget deadline

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema rocked the political world two days ago when she announced she'd leave the Democratic Party to become an independent. The move is not expected to matter much on Capitol Hill right now, but it could in 2024. To explain, we now turn to NPR political correspondent Susan Davis. Good morning, Sue.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Hey, Ayesha.

RASCOE: So, I mean, this might be a little bit harsh, but at least according to the polls, Sinema's not well-liked back home in Arizona, at least politically. I don't know about personally. But why not? Like, and why would changing her affiliation help her?

DAVIS: Well, harsh but fair I think. You know, she's been this unique figure in the Senate. And she has a voting record and a series of positions that have really frustrated Democrats in particular, things like her opposition to ending the filibuster in the Senate to make it easier for Democrats to pass legislation and also things like opposing tax raises on the wealthiest Americans to help pay for part of Biden's agenda. She opposed that and derailed part of the president's agenda earlier this year. So she's won no favor among Democrats. And in a very polarized country, you're not going to have particularly high approval among the opposing party, either. So in Arizona, a state that's pretty evenly divided by Democratic, Republican and independent voters, she's upside down with all of them. She has higher disapproval ratings than approval ratings. I think that's important context to look at this decision by. I don't think it comes at a time of particular political strength from her. It's happening at a time of political weakness. And I think in some ways, it needs to be viewed through that lens.

RASCOE: So, I mean, I've heard that if Sinema runs as an independent in 2024 - and she hasn't announced yet - that there's concern that she would hand the election to Republicans by splitting the Democratic vote. Like, how would that work since she's so unpopular among those core Democratic constituencies?

DAVIS: I mean, you already have people on the progressive left - their attitudes towards her was, good riddance. Get out of the party. She was also likely to face a Democratic primary regardless of whether she had stayed in the party or not. So the chances that Democrats don't put up a candidate seem very, very unlikely, considering how much dislike they have toward Sinema. So as you said, you know, you put up a Democrat. She runs as an independent. And they pretty clearly split the vote on that side of the aisle. And it makes it pretty easy for a Republican candidate to win with the plurality of votes. Now, as we've seen in Arizona, candidate quality matters a lot. Republicans have to put up somebody that could win. But any, you know, reasonably viable candidate with Sinema and a Democrat on the ballot would probably be pretty heavily favored in '24. And I think that's why you saw a lot of Republicans on Capitol Hill responding to this with what I described as quiet glee.

RASCOE: OK. So a little closer on the time horizon, Congress is facing another deadline to pass a big spending bill to fund the government by this coming Friday. It's like living check to check, kind of.

DAVIS: (Laughter).

RASCOE: So will this be one of those short-term extenders? And will lawmakers ever get back to regular order that people talk about sometimes?

DAVIS: Oh, it's not a good time to be a regular order fan, so I wouldn't get your hopes up. Shutdown talk is very minimal. It's not on the horizon, but they have a lot to negotiate still. They want to try and pass a yearlong funding bill. They can't really agree on the details. And so it's very likely they're going to need a short-term punt. One of the key things at issue right now is President Biden's request for more money for Ukraine. He asked for about $37 billion from Congress. There is increasing resistance, particularly on the Republican side of the aisle, to keep funding the war effort there. I do think there's talk of maybe trying to put something in the legislation that would give Congress more oversight or get more reports on how this money is being spent. But that's one of the key sticking issues. I think if they don't resolve it by Friday, they'll come up with another short-term solution. But if all else fails, Democrats are saying they'll just do a short-term funding gap into next year and let the new House Republican majority figure it out.

RASCOE: So a separate defense budget bill has already passed the House, you know, and the annual legislation sets the agenda for the Defense Department. There is a new system for prosecuting sexual assault and other crimes, like murder in the military. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democrat from New York, has been fighting for this change. Here's what she says.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND: They now have a system of justice that is worthy of their sacrifice, that we now have a system of justice that is independent, that is transparent and accountable, that will hopefully reduce or be free of bias.

RASCOE: Sue, in about 30 seconds we have left, like, how were accusations handled in the past, and what does this new policy do?

DAVIS: Well, this is a result of a basically a 10-year fight by Kirsten Gillibrand. And what it does is it takes commanders out of the process. People no longer have to report sexual assault claims. It would go to something called a special trial counsel with trained prosecutors. Fewer than a quarter of sexual assault victims in the military have come forward, and they think that this will make it a process that's more fair to the people that serve.

RASCOE: NPR's Susan Davis, thank you so much for joining us.

DAVIS: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Susan Davis is a congressional correspondent for NPR and a co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. She has covered Congress, elections, and national politics since 2002 for publications including USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, National Journal and Roll Call. She appears regularly on television and radio outlets to discuss congressional and national politics, and she is a contributor on PBS's Washington Week with Robert Costa. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Philadelphia native.