Kyrsten Sinema could be the 50th vote for — or against — Biden's ambitious agenda. So what does she want?
Last week, President Biden came before Congress to kick-start the next phase of his presidency, calling on lawmakers to pass $4.1 trillion worth of legislation meant to modernize America’s infrastructure, combat climate change, expand education and shore up the safety net for working families — “a fundamental reorientation of the role of government not seen since the days of Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society and Roosevelt’s New Deal,” in the words of the New York Times. And as if that weren’t enough, Biden promised sweeping bills on immigration, guns, policing and voting rights too.
“Autocrats think that democracy can’t compete in the 21st century with autocracies, because it takes too long to get consensus,” Biden said. “We have to prove democracy still works, that our government still works and we can deliver for our people.”
There are only two ways, however, that any of the president’s big post-pandemic plans are surviving a 50-50 Senate. Every single Democrat could agree to take the parliamentary shortcut known as reconciliation, which allows for a simple majority vote on certain, and often narrowly defined, types of budgetary legislation. Alternatively, all 50 Senate Democrats could agree to alter or do away with the legislative filibuster, which currently ensures that no major bill can pass with fewer than 60 votes.
Otherwise, much of Biden’s legislative agenda is DOA. And Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona could be the one to kill it.
As the first openly bisexual senator in U.S. history — and the first to list her religion as “none” — Sinema has built her brand on breaking the rules.
When the pandemic shuttered salons, Sinema hid her undyed hair beneath colorful wigs. She teaches cycling classes and completes Ironman triathlons on her days off. A proud centrist, she voted with President Donald Trump more than half the time after her election to the Senate in 2018 — tying Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of MAGA-red West Virginia for the highest crossover rate and far exceeding any other Democrat from a state as purple as Arizona.
With a puckish, performative thumbs-down, Sinema voted in March against raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, infuriating progressives who’d hoped for a leftward swerve under Biden. Then last month she fanned the flames with an Instagram selfie that showed her sipping sangria in magenta eyeglasses and flashing a big golden word ring.
“F*** Off,” it read in gleeful cursive letters.
Yet while Sinema has gone out of her way to defy the usual laws of political gravity — and to claim the maverick mantle of her fellow Arizonan, the late Sen. John McCain — there is one rule she refuses to break: the filibuster.
“When you have a place that’s broken and not working, and many would say that’s the Senate today, I don’t think the solution is to erode the rules,” Sinema told the Wall Street Journal last month. “I think the solution is for senators to change their behavior and begin to work together, which is what the country wants us to do.”
This refusal is about to make her one of the most pivotal players in what could be the defining drama of Biden’s presidency.
For months now, Manchin, the Senate’s senior Blue Dog Democrat and one of Sinema’s self-professed role models, has hogged the limelight on Capitol Hill. “The most powerful Joe in Washington,” Business Insider declared. “Sen. Joe Manchin [is] running America,” added the Dallas Morning News. “Your highness,” quipped one Senate colleague as he passed Manchin in the hall.
The reason, pundits say, is simple. “He’s the 50th Democratic vote in a tied Senate,” explains David Lieber, who covered Manchin in Charleston, W.Va., “and if he doesn’t like something, it won’t happen.”
Yet Sinema’s disruptive potential may exceed Manchin’s. So far her flashy style has attracted more attention than her ambitions; D.C. types have called her “colorful” at least as often as they’ve called him “powerful.” Yet Sinema’s approach to politics differs from Manchin’s in ways that could make her even more problematic for Biden in the months ahead.
“Right now, Sinema is playing it very, very cagey, and I think that’s because she figures there’s no reason to prematurely take political hits,” says Arizona Republic columnist Robert Robb, a close observer of the state’s politics for more than 40 years. “But ultimately, in all likelihood, it’s gonna come down to her.”
Kyrsten Lea Sinema was born in Tucson, Ariz., in 1976. She was raised as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. When her parents divorced, her mother and stepfather moved the family to the Florida Panhandle. For three years, they lived in an abandoned gas station — a destabilizing ordeal that Sinema has long touted (in vivid if contradictory detail) as the reason she went into public service. Education ultimately saved her. At 16, Sinema graduated as valedictorian of her high school; at 18, she graduated from Brigham Young University. She soon left the Mormon church and became a social worker.
When Sinema first entered Arizona politics in the early 2000s, she was a Ralph Nader-supporting spokeswoman for the local Green Party who pushed against the death penalty and organized dozens of post-9/11 antiwar protests. “Until the average American realizes that capitalism damages her livelihood while augmenting the livelihoods of the wealthy,” Sinema wrote in a 2002 letter to the Arizona Republic, “the Almighty Dollar will continue to rule.”
After failed independent bids for the Phoenix City Council and the Arizona House of Representatives, she joined the Democratic Party in 2004. She won a state House seat later that year, then went on to describe herself as a “Prada socialist” and “the most liberal member of the Arizona State Legislature.”
Yet as Sinema ascended the political ranks — first to party leadership, then to the state Senate and finally, in 2012, as a candidate for the U.S. House — something changed.
She has been frank about her evolution. “A person who chooses to be a bomb thrower in the legislature is choosing to remove himself or herself from the work of the body: negotiating on bills, working to find compromises, and sometimes teaming up with unusual allies to promote or kill legislation,” Sinema wrote in her 2009 book “Unite and Conquer: How to Build Coalitions That Win — and Last,” noting that her first two years in the state House of Representatives — her time as a bomb thrower — were a “miserable” experience.
“It didn’t fit me,” she continued. “I do love to give fiery speeches. But I also love people. I love talking with people, working together and making friends.”
Only Sinema knows whether this move to the middle stemmed from conviction or calculation. Either way, it worked; she hasn’t lost another election. During her six years in the House, Sinema was one of just half a dozen Democrats in the chamber to vote for a GOP bill that would punish so-called sanctuary cities by withholding federal funds; one of just seven who voted to create a select committee to investigate the 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya; and one of just three who voted to make permanent some of the cuts in Trump’s tax bill.
Sinema also joined the GOP in voting for legislation that would deregulate the banking industry, provide $1.6 billion for a border wall with Mexico, weaken Obamacare’s employer mandate and prevent Syrian and Iraqi refugees from being resettled in the United States until tighter vetting processes could be implemented. She even voted against Nancy Pelosi for House minority leader — twice.
In 2018, Sinema ran to replace retiring Republican Sen. Jeff Flake. During her campaign, Sinema insisted that Trump was “not a thing,” adding “it is never about party” with her. She intentionally omitted her political affiliation from her ads and pointedly refused to endorse her party’s candidate for governor; when asked if she was a “proud Democrat,” she couldn’t bring herself to answer yes.
She wound up winning more independents and more crossover voters than her Republican opponent, Martha McSally. It was enough for a 2-point victory, making her the first Democratic U.S. senator elected from Arizona in 30 years.
For Sinema, the lesson was obvious: In a place like Arizona, moderation is the only path to statewide success. “It’s easy — and too often, expected — for elected leaders to line up on either side of a partisan battle,” she recently explained. “What’s harder is getting out of our comfort zones and building bipartisan coalitions that get things done for everyday Americans — and that is the approach I promised Arizonans I will use.” (Sinema did not respond to Yahoo News’ request for an interview.)
Being a successful candidate, however, isn’t the same as being an effective lawmaker — especially after your own party secures a Senate majority. Until this year, Sinema spent her entire career, from Phoenix to Washington, D.C., serving under at least partial Republican rule. In that scenario, promising to build “bipartisan coalitions” made sense as a legislative strategy and an electoral pitch. How else do you “get things done,” the thinking went, or persuade swing voters you actually want to?
But now that Democrats have unified control of government — and with Sinema having positioned herself as a tiebreaking vote — the calculus has changed. In the coming weeks and months, Biden’s relentless legislative push will test her like never before. Bipartisanship might be Sinema’s dream, but neither Republican nor Democratic leaders in Congress seem to believe it benefits them politically to prioritize it right now.
“I can tell you this, I am going to do everything I can to get the biggest, boldest change we can, because I think the people I represent depend on it,” Democratic Majority Leader Chuck Schumer told the New York Times last week. “My party depends on it. But most of all, the future of my country depends on it.”
As a result, Sinema may finally be forced to choose which matters more to her: getting stuff done or making a point.
It’s not much of a stretch to say that Biden’s entire post-COVID-19 agenda hangs in the balance. Manchin is typically cited as Democrats’ main internal obstacle, and it’s true that he also opposes filibuster reform.
“There is no circumstance in which I will vote to eliminate or weaken the filibuster,” he wrote last month in a Washington Post op-ed after repeatedly signaling his openness to various reforms of the procedure. “The time has come to end these political games, and to usher in a new era of bipartisanship.”
As with Sinema, there may be more than idealism at work here. Moderates need base voters and swing voters to win reelection — so not actually having to vote for or against partisan priorities such as gun control helps them (in theory) to avoid alienating either constituency.
Yet Manchin and Sinema operate differently. As Lieber, the former West Virginia Statehouse reporter, recently put it, Manchin is a “horsetrader supreme.” In March, Manchin upended Biden’s carefully negotiated $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill when he said he’d vote for a Republican amendment to shorten the time frame for expanded unemployment benefits. After a half-day scramble that eventually produced some relatively minor adjustments, Manchin returned to the fold and the bill passed through budget reconciliation on a party-line vote — as Manchin basked in coverage that now claimed he had “forced difficult changes ... rather than simply going along with what Biden wants,” according to Vox.
This is Manchin’s brand, and it’s how he has been winning elections in reddening West Virginia since 1982 — including two for governor in the 2000s and a 3-point Senate victory in 2018, two years after Trump won there with his largest vote share in the country (68.5 percent). He has some room to maneuver.
Sinema is on shakier ground. “She’s different from Joe Manchin,” says Yuval Levin, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute. “He’s really spent his entire career being the guy he is now — a force of resistance against the left of his party. And he’s very comfortable there. I think Sinema’s somewhat less comfortable.”
Like Manchin, Sinema ultimately voted to pass Biden’s COVID relief bill with zero Republican votes. But unlike Manchin, she did not make a show of gumming up the works in the name of centrism. Instead, her office eventually justified her decision by arguing, as the Los Angeles Times recently reported, that “Republican proposals in the final bill, such as relief for restaurants and money for homeless children, made the measure bipartisan, even if the vote tally did not.”
Whether that rationale is enough to get Sinema on board for Biden’s new jobs and families proposals — which the administration may also try to pass via reconciliation — remains to be seen. “Protecting jobs and expanding economic opportunities for everyday Americans are goals that unite all Americans,” Sinema tweeted after Biden’s speech. “I’ll continue to uphold the Arizona values of finding common ground and using common sense as I work with colleagues in both parties.”
But the shifting sands of Arizona politics may leave Sinema with less leeway than the well-established Manchin — which means that her role in either advancing or stymieing Biden’s agenda could prove more volatile. Manchin is a proven survivor in a state that has gone from ancestrally Democratic to deep-red Republican over the course of his political career. Sinema began her career in a GOP state — the home of McCain and conservative firebrand Barry Goldwater — that has moved markedly leftward since 2016.
And so in the wake of Sinema’s “F*** Off” selfie and the seemingly self-satisfied thumbs-down that preceded it, both local and national progressives have made her a target of their ire and activism, with Arizona Democratic Party education coordinator Brianna Westbrook describing Sinema’s actions as “a gut punch to the people that worked their ass off to elect her.”
Our Revolution, the Bernie Sanders-affiliated super-PAC, is sending daily fundraising emails trashing Sinema, who is up for reelection in 2024, as a “bully.” Progress Arizona is rallying against Sinema (and in favor of filibuster reform) next month in Phoenix. And one Arizona Democratic Party committee member is even pushing the party to end any “written, verbal and financial support” for her future campaigns.
“If Biden continues to be an advocate of something close to the Bernie Sanders agenda, and if Sinema’s the one keeping that from becoming law, I could see enough of a revolt among Democratic primary voters to give her deep concern,” says Robb, the Arizona Republic columnist.
The risk seems to be real — and not limited to the left. In late March, a Civiqs tracking poll showed that Sinema’s approval rating in Arizona had fallen a net 17 points since the start of February to 29 percent favorable and 40 percent unfavorable, with an even larger drop (30 points, on net) among Arizona Democrats. Independents, meanwhile, went from viewing Sinema favorably (by 6 points) to viewing her unfavorably (by 20 points) over the same period; her ratings among Republicans barely budged. In contrast, Democrat Mark Kelly, Sinema’s less idiosyncratic Arizona Senate colleague, enjoyed steadily positive numbers among independents and the broader electorate.
“It’s always been a safe bet in the past that by defending the filibuster you would earn lots of plaudits from the Beltway crowd and lots of centrist Democrats and Republicans alike,” explained Democratic strategist Adam Jentleson, the author of “Kill Switch: The Rise of the Modern Senate and the Crippling of American Democracy.” “But I think things have shifted on this issue. I think a consensus has built that Republican obstruction has gotten so extreme that filibuster reform is necessary. ... Some kind of a shift is going to have to come here. She’s too far out to the right for the people she represents in Arizona.”
On the other hand, adds Robb, “pushing the Biden agenda through on straight-line partisan votes just completely contradicts the branding Sinema successfully presented to the Arizona electorate. She has to worry about the center even more than she has to worry about the left. I don’t know what she’s going to do.”
So far, Sinema has navigated the Biden era’s choppy legislative currents by modeling the kind of “behavior” she says she wants her colleagues to emulate. She has partnered with Utah Republican Mitt Romney on one proposal to raise the federal minimum wage to $11 an hour — lower than her own state’s threshold of $12.15, but higher than the current federal benchmark of $7.25 — and another to create educational savings accounts that would help low-income students save for college and reduce their debt. Sinema has also teamed up with Texas Republican John Cornyn on a bill to address the recent influx of migrants at the southern border.
“She clearly wants to represent — for the reasons that every senator would have — the main interests in Arizona,” says political scientist Norman Ornstein, the co-author of “The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track.” “She also wants to draw a fine line here of working in a way that doesn’t blow up the Biden policy agenda, which would be catastrophic for Democrats more generally, while also trying to demonstrate to a variety of groups back home that she is striking the right kind of balance. That’s no easy task.”
It’s possible that some of Sinema’s bipartisan ideas will make it into Biden’s final jobs or families packages, enabling her to declare victory and vote for the bills through reconciliation even if no Republicans technically join her in the end. As Sinema told Politico earlier this year, “Bipartisanship is always my first choice” but “I also want to make sure that we’re getting stuff done for Arizonans. They need help ... and I don’t want to see a process that gets bogged down in petty partisanship.”
It’s also possible, Robb notes, that Biden’s plan “will unravel before she even has to vote on it, and then the Senate defaults back to searching for a more limited infrastructure bill that can get at least some Republican votes” — a more comfortable position for Sinema.
Yet the rest of Biden’s priorities — immigration, guns, policing, voting rights — probably can’t pass through reconciliation, which is designed only for spending measures. At that point, Sinema will have to decide whether fighting for the filibuster is more important to her — and her brand — than passing Democratic policies. “I want to restore the 60-vote threshold for all elements of the Senate’s work,” she told a constituent in February, claiming that it creates a “bipartisan process” that results in “better, commonsense legislation” and is “not meant to impede the things we want to get done” — even though its effect in recent years has been precisely the opposite.
Schumer has said he will give Sinema & Co. one last chance to break that pattern and see if they can corral 10 Republican votes on legislation such as H.R. 1, the party’s comprehensive voting, elections and ethics bill — of which Sinema herself is an outspoken supporter and co-sponsor. “We will look at every option,” Schumer recently told MSNBC. “I have some colleagues who are not now ... for going at it alone. They want to try bipartisanship. I’m willing to give them a little time to try that bipartisanship.”
The question is what leaders like Biden and Schumer will do once that seemingly doomed effort fails — and which rules, exactly, Sinema might be willing to break in response.
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