Sinema emerges as Senate dealmaker amid progressive angst

Sen. Kyrsten SinemaKyrsten SinemaOvernight Energy & Environment — Presented by Climate Power — Emissions heading toward pre-pandemic levels Biden discusses agenda with Schumer, Pelosi ahead of pivotal week Biden goes after top 1 percent in defending tax hikes MORE (D-Ariz.) is leaning into her role as the Senate’s newest dealmaker amid rising pressure from progressives who are increasingly irritated over the centrist’s support for the filibuster.

Sinema is betting that she’ll be able clinch big bipartisan agreements that have become increasingly elusive, burnishing her credentials back in Arizona, where frustrated activists are already sending early warnings about a 2024 primary.  

She won an early victory with the bipartisan infrastructure deal endorsed by President BidenJoe BidenSunday shows preview: Coronavirus dominates as country struggles with delta variant Did President Biden institute a vaccine mandate for only half the nation's teachers? Democrats lean into vaccine mandates ahead of midterms MORE, a moment that allowed her to hit back at skeptics. The deal, she said, “shows that when a group of people who are committed, with shared values, to solving the problems and challenges our country faces, we can use bipartisanship to solve these challenges.” 

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The Arizonan’s role in the talks is her highest-profile negotiation but not her only bipartisan effort. She is also involved in minimum wage and immigration talks and helped broker a deal last year between then-Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerBiden discusses agenda with Schumer, Pelosi ahead of pivotal week CEOs urge Congress to raise debt limit or risk 'avoidable crisis' If .5 trillion 'infrastructure' bill fails, it's bye-bye for an increasingly unpopular Biden MORE (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Pat ToomeyPatrick (Pat) Joseph ToomeyBlack women look to build upon gains in coming elections Watch live: GOP senators present new infrastructure proposal Sasse rebuked by Nebraska Republican Party over impeachment vote MORE (R-Pa.) that smoothed the way for a coronavirus relief bill. 

It’s the sort of work that leans on Sinema’s deep ties with GOP senators, cultivated since she joined the chamber in 2019. 

“She was really the chair of the operation and moved things forward and pushed both sides on various issues to get to a middle ground,” said Sen. Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyWarren, Daines introduce bill honoring 13 killed in Kabul attack Overnight On The Money — Presented by Wells Fargo — GOP senator: It's 'foolish' to buy Treasury bonds Democrats aim for maximum pressure on GOP over debt ceiling MORE (R-Utah), adding that Sinema was a “can-do person, and I like working with a can-do person.” 

Sinema and Sen. Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanEmboldened Trump takes aim at GOP foes Overnight On The Money — Presented by Wells Fargo — GOP senator: It's 'foolish' to buy Treasury bonds Senate lawmakers let frustration show with Blinken MORE (R-Ohio) quietly negotiated over the deal for months while keeping their talks on the back burner as Biden publicly met with Sen. Shelley Moore CapitoShelley Wellons Moore CapitoOvernight Energy & Environment — Presented by Climate Power — Senate Democrats ding Biden energy proposal Capito grills EPA nominee on '#ResistCapitalism' tweet GOP senators unveil bill designating Taliban as terrorist organization MORE (R-W.Va.). 

Portman, who noted that he had collaborated with Sinema “a lot,” praised her, saying that she “did a great job leading the effort.” 

Progressives are less enamored with Sinema.

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They see her as endangering a broader agenda with her opposition to ending the filibuster, which requires 60 votes for most legislation to pass the Senate.  

“It’s really frustrating to feel like there’s an agenda on the table that is popular, that is exciting and that Sinema is ... focusing instead on bipartisanship for bipatisanship’s sake,” said Emily Kirkland, the executive director of Progress Arizona. 

Sinema has shown no signs of backing down, even as activists warn she’s increasingly out of step with her own voters.

“I think the way that she has positioned herself and the corner she has backed herself into if she doesn't move is not sustainable. ... She is just not accepting the reality of today’s Senate,” said Eli Zupnick, a spokesperson for Fix Our Senate.

Activists have also been holding in-state events, running ads and sending a flurry of letters to try to build pressure on Sinema. The pushback on her filibuster stance has worked its way up to the Senate, though her progressive colleagues have been careful not to let their criticism get personal. 

“Proponents of existing Senate rules say that in the name of bipartisanship or tradition or consistency of policy, we should purposefully frustrate the changing will of the electorate. ... This preference for policy consistency, intentionally blind to the merits of policy over direct democracy is particularly insidious at this moment in American history,” Sen. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphySenators slow Biden with holds at Pentagon, State Tell our troops: 'Your sacrifice wasn't in vain' Sunday shows preview: Bombing in Kabul delivers blow to evacuation effort; US orders strikes on ISIS-K MORE (D-Conn.) said, responding to Sinema’s recent Washington Post op-ed defending the filibuster. 

Progressives are hoping they can still move Sinema, believing she’ll have to square her support for things such as the John LewisJohn LewisHarris, CBC put weight behind activist-led National Black Voter Day Budowsky: High stakes drama for Biden, Manchin, Sinema Stacey Abrams backs Senate Democrats' voting rights compromise MORE Voting Rights Act and the For the People Act with the inability to get them through the Senate. 

They’re also pointing to a line in her recent Washington Post op-ed calling for a public Senate debate as a sign that she could be persuaded to make changes to the filibuster. 

Sinema's staff tamped down the idea that she was sending any signals, characterizing the op-ed as an effort to address the question she gets most frequently — whether to eliminate the filibuster — and to advocate for a public debate to give a “full airing” to what could happen to public policy without it.  

"In her op-ed, she tried to take every question we've been getting from reporters and from some of our activists on this and say, 'OK, you've asked me this question. Here's how I think about it,'" said John LaBombard, Sinema’s spokesman. 

Progressives predict that there could be political consequences if Sinema doesn’t shift. And a group of Arizona-based LGBTQ activists sent her a letter warning that if she didn't come out for nixing the filibuster, “we will have no choice but to seriously consider whether our support for you, including financial donations, may better serve our community if directed to another Democrat” in 2024. 

But her supporters argue that there is still a path for a more moderate Democrat because Arizona is a battleground state with swing voters. Sinema, the state’s first female senator, was the first Democrat to win a Senate seat in Arizona since 1988. 

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Sinema’s office declined to comment on speculation of a primary challenge that is roughly three years away. But LaBombard also stressed that her position on the filibuster “is not based on campaign politics or polling.” 

Sinema’s willingness to try to cut bipartisan deals while breaking with her party — she opposed the $15 federal minimum wage — has garnered her the on-off label of being a “maverick,” a moniker that in the Senate and in Arizona has deep ties to the late Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCain20 years after 9/11, US foreign policy still struggles for balance What the chaos in Afghanistan can remind us about the importance of protecting democracy at home 'The View' plans series of conservative women as temporary McCain replacements MORE (R-Ariz.). 

“Same journalists and pundits who go OUT OF THEIR WAY to bring up my Dad and applaud him for his maverick ways are sure spending a lot of energy ripping apart and defaming @kyrstensinema for being a maverick against her party,” Meghan McCainMeghan Marguerite McCainComedian Norm Macdonald dies following battle with cancer: report Meghan McCain joins Daily Mail as columnist 'The View' plans series of conservative women as temporary McCain replacements MORE, his daughter, tweeted recently about Sinema. 

But that’s earned her little favor with progressives, who argue that if she’s trying to prove she has a John McCain-like independent streak, she’s going about it the wrong way. 

“This is not a smart place to be. If she wants to seem like a maverick, if she wants to be a maverick, the way to do this is not to focus on defending a process issue. That is not what Sen. McCain did to become a maverick,” Zupnick said. 

Asked if Sinema was actively trying to cultivate a “maverick” label, LaBombard noted that while she “truly considers John McCain a personal hero,” he had “never heard her say, ‘I want to be called a maverick.’” 

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Sinema is hardly the only Democrat coming under pressure from progressives. Sen. Joe ManchinJoe ManchinBriahna Joy Gray: Push toward major social spending amid pandemic was 'short-lived' Overnight Energy & Environment — Presented by Climate Power — Emissions heading toward pre-pandemic levels Biden discusses agenda with Schumer, Pelosi ahead of pivotal week MORE (D-W.Va.) also opposes eliminating the filibuster. 

The two in other ways are very different. 

Sinema has spawned countless headlines with her style and went viral for, in the words of Romney, “breaking the internet” for wearing a “dangerous creature” shirt. The most eyebrow-raising thing Manchin has been spotted in around the still conservatively dressed Capitol is a collection of bright polo shirts and jeans. 

Sinema has stuck with her party on floor votes where her support has been critical and helped lobby Manchin when he held up the coronavirus bill for hours. And while Manchin is a media darling, appearing regularly on the Sunday shows and chatting with reporters several times a day, Sinema largely avoids the national press. 

It has earned her a well-known reputation among Capitol Hill reporters as one of a small number of senators who don’t engage in routine hallway interviews — a dynamic that Sinema, in a rare interaction with reporters, has made clear she’s aware of. 

“We all have five minutes. ... Joe Manchin has 20,” she quipped as she and other members of the team negotiating infrastructure gaggled with reporters late last month. 

And as senators left for the two-week July 4 recess, Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandHochul tells Facebook to 'clean up the act' on abortion misinformation after Texas law Democratic senators request probe into Amazon's treatment of pregnant employees The FBI comes up empty-handed in its search for a Jan. 6 plot MORE (D-N.Y.), speaking to reporters outside, urged Sinema, whom she called the “sunshine of the party,” to come talk to reporters with her. 

“I’ve already talked to them, which is like a big day,” Sinema said. “Give me another year or so.”