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EXPLAINER: What Sinema’s switch means for the Senate

WASHINGTON (AP) — Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema’s switch from Democrat to independent won’t change the balance of power in the Senate. But it could affect her political fortunes back home.

Sinema says she won’t caucus with Senate Republicans, so Democrats will still hold the majority next year. And she is expected to continue casting most of her votes with Democrats while separating herself on certain issues.

“Nothing’s going to change for me,” Sinema declared in a video announcing her decision.

A look at what Sinema’s decision means:

WHAT IT MEANS FOR THE SENATE

Not much. Democrats will still be in charge, and day to day operations won’t change for Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. Sinema is still holding her Democratic committee assignments, meaning she can’t upend the party structure too much.

It is unclear exactly what the Senate’s party balance will be, and whether she will still caucus with Democrats – meaning she would be counted as one of their ranks. If she does, Democrats will have a 51-49 majority. If she doesn’t, the balance would be 50-49, with Sinema voting as an independent. Either way, Democrats will have a majority.

“We will maintain our new majority on committees, exercise our subpoena power and be able to clear nominees without discharge votes,” Schumer said in a statement on Sinema’s decision.

WHAT IT MEANS FOR THE DEMOCRATIC AGENDA

Again, it’s unlikely that Sinema’s move will change the party’s path forward, especially now that Republicans will be in the House majority, and little legislation will move through Congress.

Sinema has always voted in an independent manner – championing some party priorities such as same-sex marriage, which she was instrumental in negotiating before Senate passage last week, and opposing others such as a minimum wage increase. She and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., helped water down much of President Joe Biden’s social spending agenda in the first two years of his presidency.

She has generally voted for Biden’s executive and judicial nominations, as well.

WHAT IT MEANS FOR SINEMA

What it means for Sinema in Arizona is a trickier question.

Democrats are likely to put up a new candidate and put her in a three-way race for reelection in 2024, if she decides to run again. Voters will decide if they like her independent style, modeled after the late Sen. John McCain, or if they would prefer a partisan on the right or left.

“My approach is rare in Washington, and has upset partisans in both parties,” she said.


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Climate concerns give national attention to Louisiana race

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — The election for a seat on a typically obscure regulatory commission in Louisiana, a state with a front row seat to the effects of climate change, has gained national attention as major utility companies and outside political action committees pour hundreds of thousands of dollars into the race.

Saturday’s runoff election for a seat on Louisiana’s Public Service Commission pits Davante Lewis, a 30-year-old progressive policy advocate who wants to require utilities to reach net-zero emissions, against Lambert Boissiere III, 57, a New Orleans Democrat who has held the position for nearly 18 years and is backed by the state’s largest power company.

Louisiana has deeply and directly felt the impact of climate change with hurricanes making landfall more frequently, coastal areas eaten away by erosion, subsidence and rising sea levels and, most recently, the Mississippi River reaching record low water levels.

The state, which shares its southern border with the Gulf of Mexico, also has tens of thousands of jobs tied to the oil and gas industry.

“This race does have all the ingredients you would need for a minor race to become more important on a bigger stage,” Louisiana State University political scientist Joshua Darr said.

Environmentalists have increasingly focused on the commission, which regulates power companies and sets electric rates in the state. Even Hollywood is paying attention to the runoff between the two Democrats, with “Avengers” star Mark Ruffalo chiming in on social media with his support for Lewis.

The winner will serve a six-year term representing a district that stretches from Baton Rouge to New Orleans on the five-member commission, which has regulatory jurisdiction over public utilities providing electric, water, wastewater, natural gas and certain telecommunications services in Louisiana.

“The commission is super powerful in that they basically set electricity policy for the state,” said Brian Snyder, a climate policy and energy expert at Louisiana State University. “They really just control the prices, but through the prices they control everything.”

In 2021, Louisiana was ranked third among the top natural gas-producing states — accounting for nearly 10% of the United States’ natural gas production that year, behind only Texas and Pennsylvania. In addition, Louisiana had the fourth most energy-related carbon dioxide emissions per capita in 2021, according to data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Along with President Joe Biden’s aggressive goal of 100% clean electricity nationwide by 2035, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards — the only Democratic governor in the Deep South — has a goal for the state to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050.

For years, the commission has resisted calls to mandate that power companies get a certain share of their power from renewables, The Advocate news outlet reported. But, environmentalists are hopeful that stance will change as wind and solar have gotten cheaper to produce.

However, political experts are skeptical of the commission’s stance changing based on who wins the runoff. Both candidates say one of their top priorities is expanding Louisiana’s renewable energy. But no matter the outcome of the election, the GOP will remain the majority on the commission in a reliably red state.

“It’s a five person board and three of them are Republicans, so you’re electing a minority member of the committee. And so, they’re certainly not going to be able to just do and say everything that they want and have it become law,” Darr said.

Political experts note that Lewis and Boissiere have similar viewpoints and similar goals. However, fundraising has been a key issue playing out in the race.

Keep the Lights On, an affiliate of the Environmental Defense Fund, released attack ads against Boissiere, The Advocate reported. In addition, the incumbent received campaign contributions from utility companies that the commission regulates, including Entergy, Louisiana’s largest power company. While these types of contributions are legal in Louisiana, it has been heavily scrutinized.

“This is a question of when does the reputational damage outweigh the benefit of the money,” Darr said.

In addition, Lewis has repeatedly attacked the longtime commissioner’s efforts — or in the newcomer’s opinion, lack thereof — to invest in Louisiana’s outdated and unreliable electric grid which has been pummeled by hurricanes. Boissiere has said there is only so much he can do as one of two Democrats on the commission. However, he said the commission is “moving in the right direction” with recent deals for renewables and competitive energy.

What impacts campaign donations, national conversation or simply ballooning electricity bills – largely a result of high prices for natural gas — will play on the race will be determined Saturday as the final votes in the runoff are tallied.


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Senator Sinema of AZ leaves Democratic party (AUDIO)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona announced Friday she has registered as an independent, a renegade move that could bolster her political brand but won’t upend the Democrats’ narrow Senate majority. She says she will not caucus with Republicans.

Sinema, who faces reelection in 2024, has been a vibrant yet often unpredictable force in the Senate, tending toward the state’s independent streak and frustrating Democratic colleagues at times with her overtures to Republicans and opposition to Democratic priorities.

“I just don’t fit well into a traditional party system,” Sinema she said in an interview Friday.

In the interview, Sinema said she hasn’t decided whether she will run for reelection. But she said this was the time to be “true to myself and true to the values of the Arizonans I represent.”

“I don’t expect anything to change for me,” she said. “This will just be a further affirmation of my style of working across all the political boundaries with anyone to try and get something done.”

While unusual for a sitting senator to switch party affiliation, Sinema’s decision may well have more impact on her own political livelihood than the operations of the Senate. She plans to continue her committee positions through the Democrats. Her move comes just days after Democrats had expanded their majority to 51-49 for the new year, following the party’s runoff election win in Georgia.

In a statement, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said Sinema had informed him of her decision and asked to keep her committee assignments — effectively keeping her in the Democratic fold.

“Kyrsten is independent; that’s how she’s always been,” Schumer said. “I believe she’s a good and effective senator and am looking forward to a productive session in the new Democratic majority Senate.”

The Democrats “will maintain our new majority on committees, exercise our subpoena power and be able to clear nominees without discharge votes,” he said.

In case of tie votes, Vice President Kamala Harris will continue to provide the winning vote for Democrats.

Sinema, who has modeled her political approach on the maverick style of the late Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, will join a small but influential group of independent senators aligned with the Democrats — Sen. Angus King of Maine and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

At the White House, press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre praised Sinema as a “key partner” in passing some of President Joe Biden’s priorities and said the switch “does not change the new Democratic majority control of the Senate. … We have every reason to expect that we will continue to work successfully with her.”

Sinema has been at the center of many deals brokered during this session of Congress — from a big, bipartisan infrastructure package Biden signed into law to the landmark bill approved this week to legally protect same-sex marriages.

The move to forgo a political party will scramble the Senate election landscape for 2024 as Democrats already face a tough path to maintaining Senate control. Her switch risks splitting the Democratic vote in Arizona between her and the eventual Democratic nominee, giving Republicans a solid opening.

A splintered ballot could help Republican recruiting efforts as they seek to perform better than their losses in the recent midterm elections. A weak GOP field contributed to Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly’s reelection in Arizona last month.

A political action committee, Primary Sinema, that is raising money to support a potential challenger, said the money it has already raised will now be used to back “a real Democrat” in 2024.

Abandoning the Democratic Party is a striking evolution for a politician who began her career as a Green Party member and antiwar activist known as a “Prada socialist.” The shift has been particularly vexing for progressive activists who now see her as one of their chief antagonists.

In a video explaining her decision, she said: “Showing up to work with the title of independent is a reflection of who I’ve always been.”

The first-term Sinema wrote Friday in The Arizona Republic that she came into office pledging “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.”

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

Ahead of the 2024 elections, Sinema is likely to be matched against 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 and Biden’s big social spending initiatives.

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

The senator wrote that she was joining “the growing numbers of Arizonans who reject party politics by declaring my independence from the broken partisan system in Washington.”

Sinema bemoaned “the national parties’ rigid partisanship” and said “pressures in both parties pull leaders to the edges — allowing the loudest, most extreme voices to determine their respective parties’ priorities, and expecting the rest of us to fall in line.”

“In catering to the fringes, neither party has demonstrated much tolerance for diversity of thought. Bipartisan compromise is seen as a rarely acceptable last resort, rather than the best way to achieve lasting progress,” she wrote.

Along with West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, she has been one of two moderate Democrats in the 50-50 Senate, and her willingness to buck the rest of her party has at times limited the ambitions of Biden and Schumer.

Sinema is a staunch defender of the filibuster, a Senate rule effectively requiring 60 votes to pass most legislation in the 100-member Senate. Many Democrats, including Biden, say the filibuster leads to gridlock by giving a minority of lawmakers the ability to veto.

Last January, leaders of the Arizona Democratic Party voted to censure Sinema, citing “her failure to do whatever it takes to ensure the health of our democracy″ — namely her refusal to go along with fellow Democrats to alter the Senate rule so they could overcome Republican opposition to a voting rights bill.

While that rebuke was symbolic, it came only a few years since Sinema was heralded for bringing the Arizona Senate seat back into the Democratic fold for the first time in a generation. The move also previewed the persistent opposition that Sinema was likely face within her own party in 2024.

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Cooper reported from Phoenix. AP writer Seung Min Kim contributed to this story.


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After midterms, GOP reconsidering antipathy to mail ballots

ATLANTA (AP) — In Georgia’s Senate runoff, Republicans once more met the realities of giving Democrats a head start they could not overcome.

According to tallies from the secretary of state, Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock built a lead of more than 320,000 votes heading into Tuesday’s election. He topped Republican Herschel Walker by an almost 2-1 ratio in mailed ballots and had an advantage of more than 250,000 early, in-person votes over Walker. So even with Walker gaining more votes on Election Day, the challenger lost by nearly 97,000 votes.

It was only the latest example of how Republicans have handed Democrats an advantage in balloting due to former President Donald Trump’s lies about the risks of mail voting. Conservative conspiracy theorists urged GOP voters to wait until Election Day before casting their ballots and spun tales about how such a strategy would prevent Democrats from rigging voting machines to steal the election.

There was no widespread fraud in the 2020 election or this year’s midterms.

One problem with such a strategy is the random glitches that often arise on Election Day.

In Arizona’s most populous county, for example, a printer error created long lines at several voting locations on Nov. 8. Republicans ended up losing several statewide contests, including for governor and secretary of state, although Maricopa County officials said all voters had a chance to cast a ballot and that all valid ballots were counted.

The race for Arizona attorney general, where the GOP candidate is behind by just over 500 votes, is heading to an automatic recount.

In northern Nevada, a snow storm made travel tricky on Election Day. The Republican candidate for Senate lost his race by 8,000 votes. In Georgia’s runoff, rain drenched the state as the disproportionately Republican crowd finally made its way to the polls.

Overall, Republican turnout was fairly robust in the midterms, suggesting the party did not have many problems getting its voters to the polls. But the loss in Georgia, which enabled Democrats to gain a Senate seat during an election where the GOP hoped to retake the chamber, was the last straw for several conservatives.

“We’ve got to put a priority on competing with Democrats from the start, beat them at their own game,” said Debbie Dooley, a Georgia tea party organizer who remains loyal to Trump but is critical of how he has talked about the U.S. election system.

In Washington, South Dakota Sen. John Thune, the second-ranking GOP leader, told reporters: “We’ve got to get better at turnout operations, especially in states that use mail-in balloting extensively.”

Ronna McDaniel, chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, said in an interview on Fox News this week that Republican voters need to cast ballots early.

“I have said this over and over again,” she said. “There were many in 2020 saying, ‘Don’t vote by mail, don’t vote early.’ And we have to stop that.”

McDaniel did not name the main person in 2020 who was attacking voting before Election Day — Trump.

When the U.S. went into lockdown during the March 2020 primaries, the nation’s voting system shifted heavily to mail. The then-president began to attack that manner of casting ballots, saying Democratic efforts to expand it could lead to “levels of voting that if, you ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”

Trump continued to baselessly claim mail balloting would lead to massive fraud, then blamed that imaginary mass fraud for his loss in November even after his own Department of Justice found no such organized activity. Trump’s lies helped spur the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, new GOP-backed laws tightening election regulations in Republican-led states and a wave of Republican candidates running for statewide posts in the 2022 elections who embraced his conspiracy theories.

Academic research has shown that mail voting increases turnout but doesn’t benefit either party. It is, however, normally pushed by campaigns. Once they have locked in some votes by mail, they can focus turnout operations on the laggards and get them to vote by Election Day.

Mail voting also provides a hedge against bad weather, equipment mishaps, traffic jams and other Election Day woes that can discourage voters.

Republicans in states such as Florida and Utah set up robust systems of mail voting and kept expanding their footprint. In states such as Colorado that mail every voter a ballot, older, conservative-leaning voters were the ones most likely to return their ballots by mail.

Still, the GOP has traditionally been more skeptical of mail balloting, though it was not a central piece of party identity until Trump made it so in 2020. But even conservatives who push back against expanding mail voting warn that the party has to wake up to reality.

“There is a tension on the right between folks who say, ‘They’re the rules and you’ve got to play by them,’ and those who say, ‘No, you do not,’” said Jason Snead of the Honest Elections Project, a conservative group that advocates for tighter restrictions on mail voting. “I think there’s a lot of reevaluation and reassessment going on.”

“You can stand on principle and say, ‘I am not going to do this,’ but it’s a drag on performance if you do,” Snead said.

He noted that Republicans with robust early voting programs, such as Govs. Brian Kemp in Georgia and Ron DeSantis in Florida, easily won their elections while those who echoed Trump’s conspiracy theories mostly lost.

One of the worst performances for election conspiracy theorists was in Pennsylvania, where the Republican candidate for governor, who had watched as protesters attacked the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, lost by nearly 15 percentage points. The GOP also lost a Senate seat there and control of the lower house of the legislature.

Democrats out-voted Republicans by mail by more than 3-to-1, netting 69% of the nearly 1.25 million mail ballots cast in the state. That was almost one-fourth of a total of nearly 5.4 million ballots cast.

Republicans who control the Pennsylvania General Assembly passed a massive overhaul of the state’s voting system in 2019, allowing anyone to cast a ballot by mail. Many Republicans had second thoughts in 2020 after Trump began to castigate mail voting. GOP lawmakers and their allies have since fought in court to throw out the law and inflate the number of mail ballots rejected for technicalities.

Top party officials in the state are now reassessing.

“Republican attitudes on mail-in ballots are going to have to change,” said Sam DeMarco, chair of the Allegheny County GOP. “President Trump is running across the country telling people not to use it, and it’s crushing us.”

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Riccardi reported from Denver. Associated Press writer Marc Levy in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, contributed to this report.


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Kentucky Gov. Beshear criticizes Trump, gently knocks Biden

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear, of Kentucky, criticized former President Donald Trump for dining with a white nationalist and gently distanced himself from current President Joe Biden as he tries to make own way in his 2023 bid for reelection in his Republican-dominated state.

Beshear filed for reelection this week, having drawn a crowded field of GOP challengers in a race that will be closely watched nationally, coming the year before the next presidential election. The race has been pegged as the Democratic Governors Association’s top priority next year, but Beshear said he intends to make the election about the needs of Kentuckians.

“This campaign isn’t going to be about national figures,” Beshear said during an interview Wednesday with The Associated Press at the state Capitol. “It’s not going to be about any other figures. It’s going to be about the people of Kentucky.

“So you shouldn’t expect me to bring in anyone, whether they’re popular or not popular in Kentucky,” he added. “I’m willing to run on my record. I’m willing to run on my relationship with the people of Kentucky.”

Beshear is seeking a second term on a platform highlighted by his economic development record and his support for expanded health care and for public education — including higher teacher pay. Governors Association spokesperson Sam Newton said this week that the organization is “ready to do whatever is needed to get the job done” in helping Beshear secure a second term.

Delving into national politics is a delicate issue for Democrats running for statewide office in Kentucky, but Beshear gave blunt critiques of the current and former president.

He rebuked Trump for dining with a white nationalist and said leaders across the political spectrum share a responsibility to denounce the threat of political violence. It was a rare public admonishment of the ex-president by the red-state governor.

“Donald Trump should never be having dinner with a white nationalist, ever,” Beshear said.

Trump carried Kentucky by lopsided margins in the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections, and Beshear avoided talking about the Republican president in 2019, when Beshear narrowly ousted GOP Gov. Matt Bevin. Beshear said Wednesday that Trump — who has launched his third campaign for the White House — has an “important role” to play as a former president.

“And I think everybody would like … to see him do it in the right way,” the governor said. “President Trump still has so many people that look to him, especially here in Kentucky. He has an opportunity to be a role model, to be the very best of us.”

Republican Attorney General Daniel Cameron, whose bid for governor has been endorsed by Trump, proceeded cautiously when asked about Trump’s dinner with Nick Fuentes, a far-right activist who has used his online platform to spew antisemitic and white nationalist rhetoric.

“I don’t keep up with who the president is having dinner with,” Cameron said last week.

In his interview, Beshear railed against the threat of political violence. The governor had his own brush with the risks associated with public service, when armed protesters gathered near his family’s home and hanged him in effigy in 2020, The effigy was placed in a tree near the state Capitol during a protest rally in defense of constitutional rights, including the right to bear arms. The rally turned into a protest against coronavirus restrictions and Beshear’s administration.

“Political violence is real,” Beshear said in the interview. “It is unacceptable. It is a threat to democracy, and it should be denounced by every single public official each and every time.

“There is no room in our democracy — which is based on checks and balances, that are based on disagreement and ultimate agreement — for differences of opinion to become violent.”

Beshear gave a mixed review when asked about Biden’s job performance. The Democratic president was at the governor’s side visiting tornado- and flood-stricken regions of Kentucky in the past year.

“There are things that I think have been done well, and there are things that I wish would have been done better,” the governor said.

Beshear praised Biden for his massive infrastructure deal and for his efforts in helping Kentucky recover from tornadoes and flooding. But the governor has taken a much sharper tone with federal emergency officials, hounding them to do more for victims in the aftermath of catastrophic flooding that hit in eastern Kentucky in the summer.

“Certainly I’d like to see FEMA do better for our people,” the governor said Wednesday. “Now that was an issue before the president took office. FEMA says ‘no’ way too often. And they say ‘yes’ way too little and in too little of amounts. With that said, we have been able to transform that agency in really important ways.”

Beshear, 45, the son of former two-term Gov. Steve Beshear, has won two statewide elections, for attorney general in 2015 and for governor in 2019. His national political stock will continue to rise if he wins reelection next year, but he batted away a question about whether he might someday run for president, saying his focus is on his job as governor.

He said record-setting private investment and job creation in the state are creating “a future for every other generation of Kentuckian that none of us could have ever dreamed about.”

“That’s a pretty amazing thing,” he said. “And that’s what I want to get done.”


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Bill protecting same-sex, interracial unions clears Congress

WASHINGTON (AP) — The House gave final approval Thursday to legislation protecting same-sex marriages, a monumental step in a decadeslong battle for nationwide recognition of such unions that reflects a stunning turnaround in societal attitudes.

President Joe Biden is expected to promptly sign the measure, which requires all states to recognize same-sex marriages, a relief for hundreds of thousands of couples who have married since the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision that legalized those marriages nationwide.

The bipartisan legislation, which passed 258-169 with almost 40 Republican votes, would also protect interracial unions by requiring states to recognize legal marriages regardless of “sex, race, ethnicity, or national origin.” After months of talks, the Senate passed the bill last week with 12 Republican votes.

In debate ahead of the vote, several gay members of Congress talked about what it would mean for them and their families. Rep. Chris Pappas, D-N.H., said he was set to marry “the love of my life” next year and that it is “unthinkable” that his marriage might not be recognized in some states.

Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., said he and his husband should be able to visit each other in the hospital just like any other married couple and receive spousal benefits “regardless of if your spouse’s name Samuel or Samantha.”

Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., said that the idea of marriage equality used to be a “far fetched idea, Now it’s the law of the land and supported by the vast majority of Americans.”

Democrats moved the bill quickly through the House and Senate after the Supreme Court’s June decision that overturned the federal right to an abortion. That ruling included a concurring opinion from Justice Clarence Thomas that suggested same-sex marriage should also be reconsidered.

The legislation lost some Republican support since July, when 47 Republicans voted for it — a robust and unexpected show of support that kick-started serious negotiations in the Senate. But most of those lawmakers held firm.

“To me this is really just standing with the Constitution,” said Republican Rep. Ann Wagner of Missouri, who voted for it both times. She pushed back on GOP arguments that it would affect religious rights of those who don’t believe in same sex marriage.

“No one’s religious liberties are affected in any way, shape or form,” Wagner said.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., presided over the vote as one of her last acts in leadership before stepping aside in January. She said the legislation “will ensure that “the federal government will never again stand in the way of marrying the person you love.”

The legislation would not require states to allow same-sex couples to marry, as the Supreme Court’s 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges decision now does. But it would require states to recognize all marriages that were legal where they were performed and it would protect current same-sex unions if the Obergefell decision were overturned.

While it’s not everything advocates may have wanted, passage of the legislation represents a watershed moment. Just a decade ago, many Republicans openly campaigned on blocking same-sex marriages; today more than two-thirds of the public support them.

Still, most Republicans opposed the legislation and some conservative advocacy groups lobbied aggressively against it in recent weeks, arguing that it doesn’t do enough to protect those who want to refuse services for same-sex couples.

“God’s perfect design is indeed marriage between one man and one woman for life,” said Rep. Bob Good, R-Va, ahead of the vote. “And it doesn’t matter what you think or what I think, that’s what the Bible says.”

Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-Mo., choked up as she begged colleagues to vote against the bill, which she said undermines “natural marriage” between a man and a woman.

“I’ll tell you my priorities,” Hartzler said. “Protect religious liberty, protect people of faith and protect Americans who believe in the true meaning of marriage.”

Democrats in the Senate, led by Wisconsin’s Tammy Baldwin and Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema, tried to address those GOP concerns by negotiating an amendment that would clarify that the legislation does not affect the rights of private individuals or businesses that are already enshrined in current law. The amended bill would also make clear that a marriage is between two people, an effort to ward off some far-right criticism that the legislation could endorse polygamy.

In the end, several religious groups, including The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, came out in support of the bill. The Mormon church said it would support rights for same-sex couples as long as they didn’t infringe upon religious groups’ right to believe as they choose.

Thursday’s vote came as the LGBTQ community has faced violent attacks, such as the shooting earlier this month at a gay nightclub in Colorado that killed five people and injured at least 17.

“We have been through a lot,” said Kelley Robinson, the incoming president of the advocacy group Human Rights Campaign. But Robinson says the votes show “in such an important way” that the country values LBGTQ people.

“We are part of the full story of what it means to be an American,” said Robinson, who was inside the Senate chamber for last week’s vote with her wife and young son. “It really speaks to them validating our love.”

The vote was personal for many senators, too. The day the bill passed their chamber, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer was wearing the tie he wore at his daughter’s wedding to another woman. He recalled that day as “one of the happiest moments of my life.”

Baldwin, the first openly gay senator who has been working on gay rights issues for almost four decades, tearfully hugged Schumer as the final vote was underway. She tweeted thanks to the same-sex and interracial couples who she said made the moment possible.

“By living as your true selves, you changed the hearts and minds of people around you,” she wrote.


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Schumer reelected Senate leader after Dems expand majority

WASHINGTON (AP) — Sen. Chuck Schumer was unanimously elected Thursday for another term as Senate Democratic leader, helming a bolstered 51-seat majority for a new era of divided government in Congress but intent on “getting things done” for the country.

Senate Democrats met behind closed doors at the Capitol to choose their leadership team for the new Congress that begins in January. The session was quick and upbeat, with no challengers. Unlike the contested Republican elections, the Democratic leaders were selected by acclamation. Applause was heard in the halls.

“We had a great unified meeting, where we were both very glad about what we were able to accomplish in the last Congress and setting aspirations — strong aspirations — that we will accomplish as much in the next two years,” Schumer said afterward, flanked by the dozen-member team.

As Senate majority leader, Schumer has proven to be a surprisingly steady, if frenzied, force in one of the more consequential sessions of Congress. But with Republicans taking control of the House and confronting President Joe Biden in the new year, it will be a fresh challenge for Schumer in divided Washington.

The Brooklyn-born Schumer took the top position in the weeks after the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, and has led his party through the COVID-19 crisis and unexpected legislative achievements, many of them bipartisan. A former campaign chief, he steered the party to the majority and expanded it to 51 seats with Sen. Raphael Warnock’s special election win Tuesday in Georgia.

Senate Democrats filled out their leadership team both with new and returning figures.

Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois was elected for another term in the No. 2 spot as the Democratic whip. The No. 3 position went to Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan. And Sen. Patty Murray of Washington was nominated to be the Senate president pro-tempore, and will face a Senate vote in the new year for the position. This would make her third in the line of presidential succession after the vice president and House speaker.

Warnock received rousing applause when he entered the closed Thursday. His victory, alongside the election of Democrat John Fetterman, who flipped a GOP-held seat in Pennsylvania, expands the Democrats’ slim 50-50 hold on the Senate to a 51-seat majority in January. Fetterman and the other newly elected Democrats joined in Thursday’s voting.

“Obviously, Senator Warnock’s arrival gives all of us a bounce in our step, and it’s a chance to build on what we’ve done,” said Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, chairman of the Finance Committee, as he exited the session.

Schumer’s reelection puts two New Yorkers at the top of the Democratic leadership in Congress, alongside Rep. Hakeem Jefferies, the incoming House minority leader. Jeffries was elected to lead Democrats after Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s decision to step aside next year.

House Republicans have nominated GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy as the new House speaker, but he is struggling to amass the 218 votes that will be needed when he goes before the full House for the speaker’s vote in January.

Senate Republicans already chose their team, putting Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell on track to become the longest serving party leader in the chamber.

McConnell beat back a rare challenge from Florida GOP Sen. Rick Scott, the party’s campaign chief, who failed to win back the Senate majority for the Republicans.

Biden will face a divided Congress in the new year, which opens an era of potentially sharp partisan tensions and oversight investigations, but also creates the possibility for bipartisanship.

Schumer said later he will lead the Senate’s 51-seat majority much the way he did this year, with a focus on “getting things done for the American people.”

He reiterated an invitation he has been making publicly to Republicans in Congress to move past Donald Trump, the former president, and work with Democrats to deliver on bipartisan priorities with Biden.

“We want to keep this chamber active, alive, and busy as much as possible,” Schumer said in a Senate speech.

“I make a clarion call to my Republican colleagues: reject MAGA and work with us,” he said, referring to Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan.

Bipartisanship has been elusive in recent years, but Schumer has been able to lead senators toward deals on infrastructure, a computer chips package and other measures that have found support from both parties, particularly as some Republicans work to move past Trump, the former president.

Schumer has declined to outline priorities for the next term as Democrats and Republicans prepare to hold separate private retreats in the new year to set their agendas.

“We’re very proud of what we were able to do in the 117th (Congress) and we’re looking forward to the 118th — the challenges will be there,” said Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md.


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AP-NORC poll: Biden’s job approval remains underwater (AUDIO)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Fresh off his party’s better-than-anticipated performance in the midterm elections, President Joe Biden is facing consistent but critical assessments of his leadership and the national economy.

A new poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research finds only 43% of U.S. adults say they approve of the way Biden is handling his job as president, while 55% disapprove. That’s similar to October, just weeks before the Nov. 8 elections that most Americans considered pivotal for the country’s future.

Only about a quarter say the nation is headed in the right direction or the economy is in good condition. Both measures have been largely negative over the course of the year as inflation under his watch tightened its grip, but were more positive through much of Biden’s first year in office.

Mishana Conlee said she tries to be optimistic about the coming year, but she thinks things are going to the gutter because “our president is incompetent” and not mentally fit for the White House. The 44-year-old in South Bend, Indiana, said she’s frustrated about rising expenses when she’s living paycheck to paycheck as a dietary aide at a nursing home.

“The more I work, I just can’t get ahead,” Conlee said. “That’s just all there is to it.”

She doesn’t blame Biden for the state of inflation, but “I feel like he’s not doing anything to change it,” said Conlee, an independent who voted for former President Donald Trump. Biden’s “not doing us any good.”

The Biden administration in its second year in the White House touted claims of  economic growth, a series of legislative wins and relative success for the president’s party in the midterms. But that has yet to translate to glowing reviews from a pessimistic public.

“I don’t understand why his approval ratings are so low,” said 56-year-old Sarah Apwisch, highlighting the administration’s investments in infrastructure and computer chip technology.

Apwisch recognizes that it’s been “a tough year” and that prices are higher, but she’s hopeful because of the midterm results as a Republican-turned-Democrat who worries about the “Make America Great Again” movement’s influence on the GOP.

“We’re headed in the right direction,” said the Three Rivers, Michigan, resident who works for a market research company’s finance department. She is eager to see Democrats press forward on a wide-ranging agenda, including codifying abortion rights.

Even as Republicans took control of the House, Democrats defied historical precedent to stunt GOP gains and even improve their Senate majority, which was cemented with this week’s runoff win for Sen. Raphael Warnock, the lone Democrat in Georgia this year to be elected statewide.

Glen McDaniel of Atlanta, who twice voted for Warnock, thinks the Biden administration has moved the country forward and weathered the economic storm as well as possible.

“I think that this administration has done as much as they can” to fight inflation, the Democrat said.

But McDaniel, a 70-year-old medical research scientist, also thinks the nation faces “social headwinds” that he wants Biden and the party to prioritize.

The poll shows majorities of Democrats and Republicans alike think things in the country are on the wrong track, likely for different reasons.

But Democrats have shown renewed faith in Biden, boosting his overall job approval rating from a summer slump. Even so, the 43% who approve in the new survey remains somewhat depressed from 48% a year ago and much lower than 60% nearly two years ago, a month after he took office.

Seventy-seven percent of Democrats, but only 10% of Republicans, approve of Biden.

While many Americans don’t entirely blame Biden for high inflation, AP-NORC polling this year showed Biden consistently hit for his handling of the economy.

As in recent months, the new poll shows only a quarter of U.S. adults say economic conditions are good, while three-quarters call them bad. Nine in 10 Republicans, along with about 6 in 10 Democrats, say the economy is in bad shape. Ratings of the economy have soured amid record-high inflation, even as Biden touts falling gas prices and a low unemployment rate at 3.7%.

Joshua Steffens doubts that the job market is as good as indicators show. The 47-year-old in St. Augustine, Florida, said he has been unemployed and struggling to find an information technology job since September.

“Even though they’re trying to claim that things are looking good,” Steffens said, “in the trenches, it definitely does not appear that it’s so accurate.”

Biden’s shopping and vacationing, captured on broadcast news, is “tone deaf,” said the Republican, who called the president “a habitual liar.”

Steffens said he and his wife are experiencing rising expenses for electricity and groceries, and relying on his wife’s income has “put a strain” on their holiday shopping. He doesn’t think Biden is handling high inflation well.

“If he has policies that he’s trying to push through, then they’re not working currently,” Steffens said.


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Trump blowback could carry less bite in 2024 for some in GOP

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Donald Trump’s attacks on fellow Republican David McCormick contributed to the former hedge fund manager’s loss in Pennsylvania’s Senate primary. Now, as McCormick considers running again for the Senate, Trump’s derision may not be such a liability.

While McCormick, 57, has not said whether he will challenge three-term Democratic Sen. Bob Casey in 2024, he is taking steps signaling a campaign may be in the works, including attending recent receptions with influential GOP strategists and donors. McCormick also plans to publish a book in March — “Superpower in Peril: A Battle Plan to Renew America” — that could raise his profile.

He would be running in what could be a much different political environment.

Trump dominated the GOP primaries this year, wielding the power of his endorsement to lift his preferred candidates to the party nomination. But many of those contenders, including Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania, lost in the general election. The latest was Herschel Walker, whose defeat on Tuesday in Georgia gave Democrats 51 of the Senate’s 100 seats.

Trump is now facing blame from some Republicans for contributing to the party’s midterm shortcomings, and that could open room for McCormick and others without worrying about blowback from the former president.

McCormick “hasn’t come to any definitive conclusion even though we’ve tried to encourage him to run,” said Christine Toretti, the GOP’s national committeewoman from Pennsylvania. “I think he’s a fabulous candidate and I would love to see him run.”

McCormick did not respond to a request for an interview.

Flipping a Senate seat in one of the most competitive states won’t be easy.

Casey, 62, has not said whether he will seek reelection. He has never won a race for Senate by fewer than 9 percentage points and, as the son of a former two-term governor and someone who has run statewide seven times, is an institution in Pennsylvania politics.

The 2024 race in the closely contested state also could be influenced by the parties’ choice of presidential nominees that year.

Some Republicans expect that the Senate field will be frozen until McCormick makes up his mind. He was the establishment favorite in the party’s seven-way primary in May that he lost by fewer than 1,000 votes to Oz.

McCormick is a West Point graduate who was awarded a Bronze Star for service in the Gulf War, got a doctorate from Princeton University, became a tech entrepreneur and served at the highest levels in President George W. Bush’s administration before running the world’s largest hedge fund.

And he’s worth nine figures.

“With his resources, the party would be foolish to actively recruit someone to go against him,” said Vince Galko, a Republican campaign strategist based in northeastern Pennsylvania. “He checks most boxes Republicans care about.”

Over the weekend, McCormick was seemingly everywhere at the Pennsylvania Society, an annual cluster of dinners, receptions, fundraisers and get-togethers for Pennsylvania’s social and political elite in New York City. McCormick attended a reception hosted by Toretti and several events held by prominent donors and organizations.

One other name coming up in Republican circles as a potential Senate candidate is the elected state treasurer, Stacy Garrity, who campaigned hard for fellow Republicans on the ticket in 2022. Garrity didn’t return a request for comment.

Perhaps an equally big problem as Casey for McCormick — or any other Republican candidate — is the GOP’s embarrassing performance in this past election.

Finger-pointing is following GOP defeats in the races for senator, governor and three toss-up congressional districts, and its loss of the state House majority. Oz lost by 5 percentage points to Democrat John Fetterman, while the party’s nominee for governor, Doug Mastriano, lost by 15 points to Democrat Josh Shapiro.

Party leaders now are warning that the GOP must end an aversion among its voters to voting by mail, fueled by Trump’s baseless claims that such voting is rife with fraud.

They also say the party must be firm about endorsing in primaries to weed out weak general election candidates and avoid bruising primaries — a prospect sure to benefit McCormick.

And after GOP candidates once again lost vast swaths of Pennsylvania’s heavily populated suburbs, there is talk anew that the party must do a better job countering Democrats’ ideas and communicating their own to moderate voters.

That must be fixed before 2024 if a GOP candidate is to be successful, said Sam DeMarco, a McCormick supporter and GOP chairman in heavily populated Allegheny County.

Still, it’s not clear that McCormick can capture the GOP’s primary electorate.

In this year’s primary campaign, McCormick tapped deep connections across the world of finance, politics and government to get support for his campaign and was the choice of many in the establishment. He was wealthy enough to pay for his own TV ads, spending $14 million of his own money, and was backed by a super political action committee spending millions more.

To try to endear himself to working-class primary voters, his campaign put up ads of McCormick shooting guns, riding a motorcycle and reminiscing in a bar about scoring touchdowns as a high school athlete.

But McCormick was attacked by primary rivals that he was a carpetbagging political opportunist trying to buy the seat after living the previous 12 years in Connecticut. He also drew criticism for being weak on China after running a hedge fund notable for its sizable portfolio that catered to Chinese investors investing in China.

In the end, McCormick was not the choice of many of the party’s farthest-right voters.

And he was not the choice of Trump, who endorsed Oz and attacked McCormick as the “candidate of special interests and globalists and the Washington establishment.”

If Trump is on the ballot in 2024, McCormick will have to share the campaign trail with a fellow Republican who tried to defeat him and who continues to peddle baseless claims about how the 2020 election was stolen from him — claims that party leaders want to put behind them.

For a party that just went through a difficult election year in Pennsylvania, it’s certainly not too early to start talking about 2024, said Keith Rothfus, a former congressman who spoke with McCormick recently. He said candidates, even ones as wealthy as McCormick, should start talking to donors now and building a network of people who will give to their campaign and support them.

It’s also important for Republicans to start early in Pennsylvania, where Democrats have been winning most statewide races and hold a slight voter registration advantage.

“Pennsylvania is not a purple-red state, it’s purple at best for Republicans,” Rothfus said. “A Republican can win, but you pretty much have to run a flawless campaign and you pretty much have to do everything right.”

___

Follow Marc Levy on Twitter: http://twitter.com/timelywriter


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Biden approval, views of economy steady, sour: AP-NORC poll

WASHINGTON (AP) — Fresh off his party’s better-than-anticipated performance in the midterm elections, President Joe Biden is facing consistent but critical assessments of his leadership and the national economy.

A new poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research finds 43% of U.S. adults say they approve of the way Biden is handling his job as president, while 55% disapprove. That’s similar to October, just weeks before the Nov. 8 elections that most Americans considered pivotal for the country’s future.

Only about a quarter say the nation is headed in the right direction or the economy is in good condition. Both measures have been largely negative over the course of the year as inflation tightened its grip, but were more positive through much of Biden’s first year in office.

Mishana Conlee said she tries to be optimistic about the coming year, but she thinks things are going to the gutter because “our president is incompetent” and not mentally fit for the White House. The 44-year-old in South Bend, Indiana, said she’s frustrated about rising expenses when she’s living paycheck to paycheck as a dietary aide at a nursing home.

“The more I work, I just can’t get ahead,” Conlee said. “That’s just all there is to it.”

She doesn’t blame Biden for the state of inflation, but “I feel like he’s not doing anything to change it,” said Conlee, an independent who voted for former President Donald Trump. Biden’s “not doing us any good.”

The Biden administration in its second year in the White House relished economic growth, a series of legislative wins and relative success for the president’s party in the midterms. But that has yet to translate to glowing reviews from a pessimistic public.

“I don’t understand why his approval ratings are so low,” said 56-year-old Sarah Apwisch, highlighting the administration’s investments in infrastructure and computer chip technology.

Apwisch recognizes that it’s been “a tough year” and that prices are higher, but she’s hopeful because of the midterm results as a Republican-turned-Democrat who worries about the “Make America Great Again” movement’s influence on the GOP.

“We’re headed in the right direction,” said the Three Rivers, Michigan, resident who works for a market research company’s finance department. She is eager to see Democrats press forward on a wide-ranging agenda, including codifying abortion rights.

Even as Republicans took control of the House, Democrats defied historical precedent to stunt GOP gains and even improve their Senate majority, which was cemented with this week’s runoff win for Sen. Raphael Warnock, the lone Democrat in Georgia this year to be elected statewide.

Glen McDaniel of Atlanta, who twice voted for Warnock, thinks the Biden administration has moved the country forward and weathered the economic storm as well as possible.

“I think that this administration has done as much as they can” to fight inflation, the Democrat said.

But McDaniel, a 70-year-old medical research scientist, also thinks the nation faces “social headwinds” that he wants Biden and the party to prioritize.

“I think that the Democrats can be a little bit more aggressive” in legislating on things like marriage equality, reproductive rights and voting reform, he said.

The poll shows majorities of Democrats and Republicans alike think things in the country are on the wrong track, likely for different reasons.

But Democrats have shown renewed faith in Biden, boosting his overall job approval rating from a summer slump. Even so, the 43% who approve in the new survey remains somewhat depressed from 48% a year ago and much lower than 60% nearly two years ago, a month after he took office.

Seventy-seven percent of Democrats, but only 10% of Republicans, approve of Biden.

While many Americans don’t entirely blame Biden for high inflation, AP-NORC polling this year showed Biden consistently hit for his handling of the economy.

As in recent months, the new poll shows only a quarter of U.S. adults say economic conditions are good, while three-quarters call them bad. Nine in 10 Republicans, along with about 6 in 10 Democrats, say the economy is in bad shape. Ratings of the economy have soured amid record-high inflation, even as Biden touts falling gas prices and a low unemployment rate at 3.7%.

Joshua Steffens doubts that the job market is as good as indicators show. The 47-year-old in St. Augustine, Florida, said he has been unemployed and struggling to find an information technology job since September.

“Even though they’re trying to claim that things are looking good,” Steffens said, “in the trenches, it definitely does not appear that it’s so accurate.”

Biden’s shopping and vacationing, captured on broadcast news, is “tone deaf,” said the Republican, who called the president “a habitual liar.”

Steffens said he and his wife are experiencing rising expenses for electricity and groceries, and relying on his wife’s income has “put a strain” on their holiday shopping. He doesn’t think Biden is handling high inflation well.

“If he has policies that he’s trying to push through, then they’re not working currently,” Steffens said.

___

The poll of 1,124 adults was conducted Dec. 1-5 using a sample drawn from NORC’s probability-based AmeriSpeak Panel, which is designed to be representative of the U.S. population. The margin of sampling error for all respondents is plus or minus 3.8 percentage points.


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