McConnell cozies up to Sinema ahead of next Congress

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is cozying up to Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) at a time when the Senate’s other most prominent Democratic centrist, Sen. Joe Manchin (W.Va.) has suffered a swift fall from grace among his Republican colleagues. 

McConnell’s lavish praise for Sinema at an event he hosted for her at the McConnell Center at the University of Louisville is a sign that he and other Republicans view the Arizona senator as the most effective bipartisan coalition builder on the Democratic side of the aisle, say GOP senators and aides. 

Senate Republican Whip John Thune (S.D.) said McConnell is grateful Sinema helped defeat the Democrats’ efforts to weaken the filibuster earlier this year. 

“He, being an institutionalist, respects the fact that she stood tall for the institution,” Thune said.  

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) explains McConnell’s respect for Sinema after she blocked efforts by Democrats to eliminate the filibuster.

Many liberal Democrats were furious when Sinema and Manchin sided with Republicans at the beginning of the year to defeat a Democratic effort to pare back the Senate’s filibuster rule to allow a voting rights package to pass.

But Republicans warned it would have set a major precedent for weakening the legislative filibuster and transforming the Senate into a majority-ruled body like the House. 

Sinema’s stance drew a rebuke from the Arizona Democratic Party’s executive board, which voted to censure her. 

But Sinema doubled down in her support for the Senate filibuster during her speech at the McConnell Center Monday. She even called for it to be expanded to cover executive branch and judicial nominees, as it used to before Democrats pared it back in 2013.

She said the filibuster is the “best way to identify realistic solutions instead of escalating this all-or-nothing political battle that results in no action or in those radical federal policy reversals.”  

McConnell’s treatment of Sinema raises questions about whether she might be persuaded to switch parties or change her affiliation to independent ahead of her 2024 Senate reelection race, when she could face a primary challenge from Rep. Ruben Gallego (Ariz.) or another liberal Democrat.  

Sinema ruled out the idea of switching parties last year, however.

“We’ve all made various attempts and runs at getting her to join our caucus. I think she’s comfortable where she is,” said Thune, who is one of Sinema’s good friends on the Republican side of the aisle.  

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), a member of McConnell’s leadership team, said Republicans view Sinema as one of the few Democrats they can work with to get bills moving in a 50-50 Senate. 

Having a good relationship with her will be key to getting bills passed with bipartisan support if Republicans win back the Senate majority on Election Day, GOP lawmakers say.

“My experience with Sen. Sinema is she’s very smart and she’s willing to work with people on both sides of the aisle to solve problems. We don’t have enough people like that around here,” said Cornyn, who toured migrant facilities with Sinema in June and introduced a bill with her to address the surge of migrants at the border in April. 

Cornyn worked closely with Sinema to pass legislation to address gun violence after the mass shooting at the Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, and to pass a $280 billion chips and science bill in August.

Hours after the massacre in Uvalde, Sinema walked up to McConnell on the Senate floor and told him she was heartbroken and wanted to do something about gun violence. He suggested she speak to Cornyn and Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.).  

Last year, she led negotiations on the $1 trillion infrastructure bill, President Biden’s biggest bipartisan accomplishment of his first two years in office.  

McConnell voted for all three bills that Sinema helped negotiate — the infrastructure, gun violence and chips and science measures. All three pieces of legislation later became law.  

More recently she played a central role in the talks over the Respect for Marriage Act, which would repeal the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as the union of one man and one women and exempts states from recognizing same-sex marriages performed in other states.  

A senior Democratic aide said predicted the marriage bill is likely to pass before the end of the year, citing Sinema’s participation in the talks as a promising sign.  

“If Sinema is involved in something, it’s likely to pass,” the aide said.  

McConnell knows he will need Sinema if Republicans control the Senate by a narrow margin in 2023.  

“To get things across the finish line in today’s Senate, you need to build relationships and get bipartisan support. McConnell understands this reality, as does Sinema,” said a second Senate aide.  

McConnell thinks the battle for control of the Senate will be very close and predicts that whichever party controls the chamber next year will have a very narrow margin. 

His praise for Sinema came the same week he pulled out all the stops to derail Manchin’s permitting reform bill. He blasted Manchin’s proposal as “a phony fig leaf” and “permitting reform in name only.”  

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) has fallen out of good graces with McConnell and has been struggling to gain Republican support for his legislation.

Cornyn said Manchin’s stock with Republicans plummeted after he surprised them by announcing a deal with Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) in late July to vote for a budget reconciliation bill that would establish a 15-percent corporate minimum tax, spend $369 billion on climate programs and empower Medicare to negotiate lower drug prices.  

Schumer on Wednesday hailed the bill that Manchin negotiated, the Inflation Reduction Act, as the “crowning jewel” of Democrats’ accomplishments.

“Sen. Manchin was doing really well until he got to the IRA, the inflation non-reduction act,” said Cornyn.  

McConnell was much kinder to Sinema when he introduced her Monday in Louisville, hailing her as “the most effective first-term senator I’ve seen in my time in the Senate.” 

The compliment sparked a backlash from liberals.

“Blocking Biden is one of McConnell’s professed goals for this Congress, which means that, if anything, Sinema has been effective in promoting the goals of the McConnell and Republican Party,” fumed MSNBC opinion columnist Hayes Brown in an op-ed.  

Sinema in her speech at the McConnell Center pushed back against liberal critics.

“In today’s partisan Washington, it may shock some that a Democratic senator would consider the Republican leader of the Senate her friend, but back home in Arizona we don’t view life through a partisan lens,” she said.  

Schumer, who is careful not to provoke the party’s liberal base, has been put in a tough position given the criticism of Sinema.  

Asked Wednesday about McConnell’s glowing praise of Sinema, Schumer noted that McConnell has complimented other Democrats he’s invited to his center in Louisville.   

“Sen. McConnell said I was very effective when I was there, as well,” Schumer responded. 

But the Democratic leader declined to say whether he would endorse Sinema in a 2024 Democratic primary. 

“Sen. Sinema has done a good job on a whole lot of different issues,” he said tersely.   

Tags Filibuster Joe Manchin Joe Manchin John Cornyn John Thune Kyrsten Sinema Kyrsten Sinema Mitch McConnell

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