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Week in politics: Democrats win Georgia; Kyrsten Sinema defects to become an Independent


And thanks for joining us this weekend. Fifty-one, 50, but really 48 - oh, Senate math gets complicated. Joining us now to talk about the week in politics, as he does most Saturdays, NPR's Ron Elving. Ron, thanks so much for being with us.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Scott.

SIMON: No sooner do Democrats solidify a majority in the Senate with Senator Warnock winning in Georgia than Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona says she's now an independent. She won't caucus with Republicans, however. What do you see in her decision, especially right now?

ELVING: It is more about Kyrsten Sinema and her standing in Arizona than it's about where things stand in the Senate, Scott. Back home, she has reaped very little benefit from her efforts to be a centrist-style broker in Washington. And she has been key to some bipartisan deals on infrastructure and marriage. But she's also been a vote against a higher minimum wage and higher taxes on wealth. So the AARP in Arizona ran a poll this fall showing Sinema was viewed unfavorably by more Democrats than Republicans or independents. And she was also viewed unfavorably by 54% of likely voters overall.

So she was looking at a tough 2024 primary. This way, if she runs, she may find a lane between the parties, especially if the Democrats were to nominate someone well to her left, and if the Republicans nominated someone like Kari Lake, their last candidate for governor, who this week is still filing lawsuits, insisting she won the election she lost last month.

SIMON: How does Senator Sinema's switch affect the calculations of Democrats for what they can accomplish or not in the Senate of the next Congress?

ELVING: At this point, the Democrats don't think it needs to change that calculation much. Sinema still appears ready to organize with the Democrats. That's what two other independents are already doing - Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Angus King of Maine. And Sinema was already a hard vote for the Democrats to get on many issues, including the filibuster and Biden's spending bills. So it might not make that much difference.

SIMON: Let's get to the Georgia runoff. In your estimation, Ron, what did the Reverend Senator Warnock do so well to hold on to his seat? And are there larger lessons for his party?

ELVING: He did a number of things right - a number of things that ought to be lessons for his party. He focused on turnout in his base in the metro areas of the state, especially the megametro around Atlanta. He actually increased his winning margin there compared to the vote last month. But while he kept his focus on his core supporters, he was also reaching out to the more moderate voters among the Republicans, making it harder for opponents to demonize him. And finally, he caught a break in running against a Senate candidate who was handpicked by former President Trump. And that, of course, was Herschel Walker, the former football star. And like nearly all of Trump's other Senate picks, Walker proved to be, shall we say, a disappointing and problematic candidate.

SIMON: Let me ask you about the House. Did this week give us a glimpse of what life might be like under the new Republican majority?

ELVING: Yes. Or at least a taste of what the first course might be. The Republican nominee for speaker, Kevin McCarthy, still lacks the votes he needs to win a majority of the whole House. He needs virtually every Republican to vote for him in order to reach the majority of the whole House. So he's got a handful of his own party members already saying they don't plan to vote for him. And there's an even larger group holding out to negotiate their votes. And he has an announced rival within his party who could force the vote into multiple rounds of balloting on January 3 and on January 4 and January 5. And that would be chaos.

So it's entirely possible he won't be speaker after all, Scott. And it's far from clear just who would be able to pick up the pieces. In the meantime, there's a lot of angry talk coming from the incoming majority about President Biden's son, Hunter. That's not new. But some of them are also upset about Biden giving up Russian arms dealer in exchange - a Russian arms dealer in exchange for American basketball star Brittney Griner last week. So it looks like it's going to be a nasty start to the new year.

SIMON: Well, it'll be good to talk to you about all this...

ELVING: (Laughter).

SIMON: ...When we get underway. That part of the year I'll look forward to, OK?

ELVING: And so will I, Scott - thank you.

SIMON: NPR's Ron Elving. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for