By Mike DeBonis,
Demetrius Freeman The Washington Post
Senate Democrats were riding high on the afternoon of July 28: A long-delayed bipartisan infrastructure package had finally come together, with many senators eager to finish that bill and move forward with a multitrillion-dollar piece of economic, climate and social legislation — President Biden’s signature “Build Back Better” plan.
But one senator, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), punctured the gleeful atmosphere with a warning shot. While Democratic members of the Senate Budget Committee may have agreed on the size of the second bill, she had not.
“[W]hile I will support beginning this process, I do not support a bill that costs $3.5 trillion,” Sinema said in a statement that struck some of her fellow Democrats as poorly timed — coming just hours before she was counting on a united caucus to advance the infrastructure deal she had painstakingly negotiated.
Sinema, 45, is not the only Senate Democrat to raise pointed concerns about the size of the party’s legislative agenda. In fact, her objections have been largely obscured by the much more prominent complaints that fellow Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) has aired about the left wing’s ambitions in newspaper op-eds, TV news appearances and near-daily comments to reporters.
Sinema, on the other hand, has remained almost entirely mum. While Manchin appeared on multiple Sunday news programs this month, Sinema hasn’t done a national television interview in weeks. But her vote in the evenly divided Senate is just as crucial as Manchin’s, and some Democrats quietly fear her objections could be even more nettlesome.
She remained silent when asked about her priorities in shaping the bill at the Capitol this week, and a spokesman, John LaBombard, said in a statement Wednesday that Sinema “is continuing to work in good faith with her colleagues and President Biden as this legislation develops.”
According to more than a dozen interviews with her Senate colleagues and aides involved in the negotiations, Sinema and her staff have been closely involved in the talks, asking detailed questions to several key lawmakers and committee aides to understand the justification for proposed spending and tax increases.
“She’s gone through the whole package and has very specific concerns and questions about very specific pieces,” said Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.), who said Tuesday that he has personally fielded questions from Sinema about his own proposal for a new Civilian Climate Corps — a multibillion-dollar line item that is a key priority for the left.
Sinema, Coons said, wanted to know more about whether the program could be quickly grown to the scale that its supporters envision.
“It’s a perfectly reasonable question,” Coons added. “I spoke up in caucus and said, you know, this is one of the ones I’m working really hard on. And she said, ‘OK, I need answers to this, this, this and this.’”
Other Democrats familiar with Sinema’s work behind the scenes, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive negotiations, said a major priority has been to ensure that matters that were negotiated out of the bipartisan infrastructure bill — additional transit funding, for instance — do not reappear in the Build Back Better bill, which would violate an agreement with Republicans to keep the two bills separate.
Sinema, the Democrats said, has also been exploring ways to “means test” some programs to target their effect on the nation’s neediest at a moment when many liberals argue that a much larger swath of Americans need help from the federal government.
Her voting record also provides warnings. Notably, with Democrats eyeing $2 trillion or more in tax increases to offset their spending plans, Sinema has publicly allied with Republicans on several tax bills. As a House member, she was one of seven Democrats to support a GOP bill eliminating the federal estate tax in 2015 and was one of only three Democrats who, in 2018, voted to permanently extend individual tax cuts passed by Republicans the year prior.
“She does not like tax increases,” said one Republican senator who has worked with Sinema and spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe her views.
Sinema arrives for a vote at the Capitol building Sept. 14.
In a signal of how seriously Sinema’s views are being taken, she met with Biden at the White House on Wednesday morning, with Manchin attending a similar meeting later in the day. LaBombard characterized the meeting as “productive,” and a White House spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.
While Democrats privately express exasperation at both of the holdout senators, several colleagues said that they have become accustomed to Manchin’s penchant for putting himself into the center of virtually any hot-button negotiation. Sinema’s motivations, they said, have been harder to read — and her concerns tougher to predict — but party leaders have had no choice but to take them seriously in the 50-50 Senate.
“The conversations are ongoing to allay her concerns,” said Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), the No. 2 Senate leader and lead vote-counter. “We take them very seriously, respect her positions and try our best to find common ground.”
Sinema has already garnered outsize attention among liberals for her role, alongside Manchin, in dampening their push to eliminate the Senate’s filibuster rule — the 60-vote supermajority requirement that has blocked the advancement of a major voting rights bill and forced party leaders to use special budget procedures to pass the rest of Biden’s agenda.
Her firm position against changing the rules has fueled efforts at pressuring her at home in Arizona, including ad campaigns, activist rallies and pleas from statehouse Democrats. But there has been little indication that Sinema has been discomfited by the backlash on the left, and she has appeared increasingly comfortable adopting the party-snubbing mantle of her GOP predecessor and political idol John McCain.
This time, however, some fellow Democrats said they believe they have significant leverage that will ultimately cajole her into supporting their vast legislative ambitions, with perhaps marginal tweaks: The trillion-dollar bipartisan infrastructure bill that Sinema negotiated with a group of fellow centrists.
“Is it appropriate for one person to destroy two pieces of legislation?” Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said in an ABC News interview Sunday, in response to a question about Manchin. “I think we’re going to work it out, but it would really be a terrible, terrible shame for the American people if both bills went down. And that is a real danger.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) vowed to bring the infrastructure legislation to a vote later this month, regardless of whether Build Back Better is ready. But many liberal House members are threatening to withhold their votes so long as the larger bill remains in flux.
Some senators are skeptical that Sinema will simply go along to get along after seeing her theory of politics — that bipartisan negotiation and cooperation can produce significant, lasting results — validated by the infrastructure deal.
“I just don’t think they’re related in her mind, or in reality, and I think that’s what’s hard for people to understand,” said the senator who has worked with Sinema. “This is not all about trade-offs and hostage-taking. It’s just, each on its own merits.”
In a recent statement first published by Politico, Sinema reiterated her opposition to a $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill and said that the infrastructure accord “should be considered on its own merits.”
“Proceedings in the U.S. House will have no impact on Kyrsten’s views about what is best for our country,” LaBombard said.
Her willingness to snub party leaders — or at least talk tough — has been greeted with great encouragement across the aisle. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has urged fellow Republicans to praise Sinema as a bulwark against a left-wing push to eliminate the filibuster.
“I pray for Manchin and Sinema every night, give them a lot of love, wish them well, and hope they can withstand the pressure,” McConnell said at a Kentucky event earlier this month. “I think they know this is the wrong thing to do for the country.”
J. Scott Applewhite
The bipartisan group of Senate negotiators speak to reporters just after a vote to start work on a nearly $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package at the Capitol on July 28.
To the Republican senators who hammered out the infrastructure deal, Sinema is doing what they hoped she and other centrist Democratic senators would do: Apply downward pressure on an agenda that would otherwise have soared to $6 trillion or more.
“I do believe that she just has a genuine concern with potential for overreach and negative fiscal repercussions,” said Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), who said Sinema shared concerns about the size of the Democrats’ plans as the bipartisan group negotiated the infrastructure deal but made no promises about where she would ultimately end up.
But Tillis and other Republicans who dealt with Sinema said they were optimistic she would hold firm.
“Anyone who thinks she’s going to be a pushover,” said Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), “is going to be severely surprised.”