December 09, 2022

Happy Friday. Smart Brevity™ count: 1,193 words ... 4½ minutes. Edited by Noah Bressner.

🚨 1 big thing: Sinema switches, scrambles Senate

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema during a news conference at the Capitol on Nov. 29. Photo: Kent Nishimura/L.A. Times via Getty Images

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona said in remarks published at 6 a.m. ET today that she's leaving the Democratic Party and registering as an independent.

  • Why it matters: It's a political earthquake that will shake up the Senate — just three days after Democrats thought they had secured a 51-49 majority.

💡 Between the lines: Axios' Josh Kraushaar tells me Sinema views activists in the Arizona Democratic Party as extreme as the state Republican Party.

  • She's up in 2024, and risked a primary from Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.) on the left.

"Arizonans — including many registered as Democrats or Republicans — are eager for leaders who focus on common-sense solutions rather than party doctrine," Sinema says in an op-ed in The Arizona Republic, her state's largest paper.

  • "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."

Sinema — ever unpredictable and inscrutable — told Senate Majority Leader Schumer of her decision yesterday, Politico reports.

  • "I know some people might be a little bit surprised by this," Sinema told CNN's Jake Tapper. "But, actually, I think it makes a lot of sense. ... I've never fit neatly into any party box. I've never really tried. I don't want to."
  • "Removing myself from the partisan structure — not only is it true to who I am and how I operate, I also think it'll provide a place of belonging for many folks across the state and the country, who also are tired of the partisanship."

🥊 Reality check: Punchbowl News notes that Sinema leaving the party gives Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) "outsized sway once again."

2. 🏀 Breaking: Griner lands in Texas

Brittney Griner deplanes this morning at Kelly Field in San Antonio, Texas.
Brittney Griner deplanes this morning at Kelly Field in San Antonio, Texas. Photo: Eric Gay/AP

Above: Brittney Griner touched down at a Texas military base this morning after nearly 10 months behind bars in Russia.

The basketball star was exchanged for convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout in the United Arab Emirates yesterday.

Brittney Griner is welcomed home on the Jumbotron of last night's NBA Heat-Clippers game in Miami.
Brittney Griner is welcomed home on the Jumbotron of last night's NBA Heat-Clippers game in Miami. Credit: Jasen Vinlove/USA Today Sports via Reuters

3. 🏠 Home-buyer breather

Data: Freddie Mac. Chart: Axios Visuals

The average 30-year fixed mortgage rate fell for the fourth straight week, to 6.33%, according to Freddie Mac, Emily Peck writes in Axios Markets.

  • It's a big pullback since rates went over 7% during early November.

Why it matters: Like the retreating dollar and shipping rates, this is yet another sign that inflation worries are easing.

  • Mortgage rates could still head back up, of course. But some experts, like Mike Fratantoni, chief economist at the Mortgage Bankers Association, are calling the top. "We think we're now past the peak on mortgage rates," he told Market News International.

Zoom out: With rates double their year-ago levels, this recent decline won't snap the real estate market out of its doldrums. But it's not the worst news for anyone looking to buy a home.

4. 📷 1,000 words

Photo: Andrew Harnik/AP

Speaker Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Schumer and other members of Congress celebrate the signing of the Respect For Marriage Act yesterday.

  • In the House, the bill got support yesterday from 39 Republicans — a drop from the 47 who voted for it in July.
  • The bill passed the Senate last month with support from a dozen Republicans.

President Biden is expected to sign it promptly.

  • Go deeper: Why some House Rs flipped to “no” on marriage equality.

5. 🐦 Musk's "Twitter Files, Part Deux"

Musk made this announcement at 3 a.m. ET today. Via Twitter

Outside journalists working with Elon Musk posted a new batch of internal communications — claiming evidence that Twitter's employees "build blacklists, prevent disfavored tweets from trending, and actively limit the visibility of entire accounts," Axios' Ina Fried reports.

  • Why it matters: Musk frames the "Twitter Files" as proof of censorship by the previous regime. Others, including experts in online platforms, say the documents depict Twitter executives imperfectly but conscientiously struggling to apply complex policies in difficult cases.

In a Twitter thread last evening, "Twitter's Secret Blacklists," media entrepreneur and former New York Times opinion staffer Bari Weiss highlighted cases where Twitter limited the distribution of tweets.

  • Weiss zeroed in on several specific accounts, including conservative activist Charlie Kirk, Stanford doctor Jay Bhattacharya, and Chaya Raichik, who operates the Libs of TikTok account.

Musk promoted the thread: "The Twitter Files, Part Deux!! 🍿🍿"

  • Weiss says she and Matt Taibbi "have broad and expanding access to Twitter's files."

Between the lines: Twitter has long made it clear that it might reduce the visibility of tweets by users who violate its rules. But the company hasn't always been transparent about those decisions.

🔮 What's next: Weiss said Taibbi will be back with the next installment.

6. 📊 Bumpless Biden

Presidential approval rating
Data: AP-NORC poll. Chart: Axios Visuals

President Biden's winning streak didn't move his numbers in an AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research taken Dec. 1-5 (1,124 U.S. adults; margin of error: ±3.8 points):

  • 43% say they approve of the way Biden is handling his job; 55% disapprove. That’s similar to October.

🧐 Between the lines: Only 25% think the nation is headed in the right direction, AP notes.

  • Nine in 10 Republicans, along with 6 in 10 Democrats, say the economy is in bad shape.

7. New mission for laid-off tech workers

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Axios' Dan Primack writes that the Department of Veterans Affairs thinks the wave of tech layoffs could help it fill 1,000 open positions in areas ranging from cybersecurity to software development.

  • Why it matters: The VA serves over 9 million veterans in more than 2,000 locations. But its digital transformation has been hampered by tech talent shortages.

One example relates to the PACT Act, recently passed to improve health care for veterans who were exposed to toxic substances like Agent Orange in Vietnam or open burn pits in Iraq.

  • The VA is trying to better streamline management of these new benefits by accelerating its migration to the cloud.

VA chief information officer Kurt DelBene, who spent most of his career at Microsoft, hopes other technologists will follow his move:

  • "We're the largest integrated health care and financial services infrastructure organization in the country," he said. "We also have around a thousand systems that need modernization."

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Editor's note: This item has been corrected to reflect that Kurt DelBene is the VA's chief information officer, not its chief technology officer.

8. 1 for the road: Luxury porta-johns

Photo: Jupe

Portable toilets with Bluetooth stereo systems, hot and cold running water, LED lighting, hand sanitizer, air conditioning and plush rolls of paper are starting to pop up across the country, Jennifer A. Kingson writes for Axios What's Next.

  • Why it matters: COVID raised our hygiene standards and expectations — while closing many reliable pit stops, and highlighting the shortage of public restrooms in U.S. cities.

The glamping company Jupe bills its high-tech outdoor toilet, the Portal, as both a "work of art" and (eventually) a way to transform outdoor waste into fertilizer.

  • The Posh Privy, which rents out over-the-top bathroom trailers for events in California wine country, recently acquired Fancy Flush to satisfy growing demand.
  • D.C.-based startup Throne is aiming to join Portland Loo in serving the municipal and corporate markets.

Where it stands (or sits): Manufacturers of luxury portable toilets are backed up with orders into 2024.

  • Demand is coming from wedding and event planners seeking luxury trailers, and social service agencies hoping to serve the homeless.

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