Enigmatic Sinema has Democrats guessing

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) has emerged this fall as the biggest mystery in the Senate Democratic caucus as colleagues scramble to figure out what it will take to get her to vote for a budget reconciliation to enact President Biden’s Build Back Better agenda. 

The latest curveball from Sinema is an interview where she talked about the urgent need to address climate change. Her comments have helped create new political momentum behind a carbon tax even though the idea didn’t seem to be going anywhere just a few weeks ago. 

Sinema is not pushing for or proposing a carbon tax, according to a Democratic aide familiar with her thinking, but Sinema’s comments to The Arizona Republic last week are being interpreted by some Democratic senators as an endorsement of the idea. 

“We know that a changing climate costs Arizonans. And right now, we have the opportunity to pass smart policies to address it — looking forward to that,” she told the Republic in a recent interview. 

That comment has morphed into a belief among some senators that Sinema can be a driving force behind a carbon tax, even if many other Democrats view it as a political land mine. 

The confusion over what exactly Sinema supports stems in part from her reluctance to make public demands. She rarely answers reporters’ questions in the Capitol hallways, unlike Sen. Joe Machin (D-W.Va.), the Senate’s other most famous centrist who regularly holds court with the Capitol press corps as he walks to and from Senate votes. 

“Nearly every day for weeks, Kyrsten has been engaged in direct, good-faith discussions with her Senate colleagues, and President Biden and his team. Given the size and scope of the proposal — and the lack of detailed legislative language, or even consensus between the Senate and House around several provisions — we are not offering detailed comments on any one proposed piece of the package while those discussions are ongoing,” said Sinema’s spokesman, John LaBombard. 

Sinema, who for months wore a purple wig in the Capitol when she couldn’t visit her hairstylist during the pandemic, is not afraid to march to the beat of her own drum. 

She dresses with an edgy sense of style unmatched in the often-stodgy Senate chamber, where former Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.) was once considered a rebel for wearing a bolo tie on the floor. 

That independent streak sets her apart from the rest of the Democratic caucus and got her into trouble earlier this year when she and seven other Democratic senators voted against an amendment to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour.

Sinema provoked the strongest backlash of any of the group after she flashed a thumbs down on the floor with a brief curtsy while wearing an eye-catching skirt and boots and toting a fashionably purple handbag. 

Her office pushed back at the time against criticism of the senator’s body language and clothing as inappropriate and sexist. 

There’s no question that Sinema has emerged as one of the chamber’s most influential centrists since the floor battle over the minimum wage in March. 

She emerged as the lead negotiator of a $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill, working closely with fellow moderate Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) to put a deal together with the White House after earlier talks between Biden and Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) fell apart. 

Many Democrats had given up hope of passing any significant legislation with Republican support but Sinema doggedly stuck with her mission until the legislation finally passed the Senate on Aug. 10 with 19 Republican votes.

Biden granted her and Manchin one-on-one meetings on Sept. 15 to feel out what they want and what they’d be willing to support. Sinema and Manchin met privately with Biden at the White House again last week as part of a small group of Senate Democratic moderates.

“In a 50-50 Senate everyone has the power on the Democratic side to exert influence, and what you’re seeing is Sen. Sinema taking her opportunity to exert that influence,” said Rodell Mollineau, a Democratic strategist and former Senate Democratic leadership aide. 

Mollineau said while Sinema is now attracting a lot of press attention, her views are likely shared by other moderates who are being more careful to stay out of the public spotlight. 

“It seems as though she’s gaining the respect of not only her Democratic colleagues, but Republicans as well,” he added.  

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) on Monday said he knows Sinema isn’t on board with the plan to pass a $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill — which the vast majority of Senate and House Democrats support — but doesn’t otherwise have a solid grasp of how exactly she wants to shape the legislation.  

“I have not sat down with her since an early conversation when she said 3.5 [trillion dollars] is unacceptable,” Durbin said. 

Durbin, like many other Senate Democrats, would be eager to add a carbon tax to the reconciliation package as a way to combat climate change and raise revenue to pay for the bill. 

“I support that, but I don’t know if that is going to be part of the package. The notion I have and most have is a carbon tax would be refunded to American families, so the net result of it would be to reduce their taxes and to also create a marketplace of incentives for people to lessen the carbon that they’re using,” Durbin said. 

Other Democrats say Sinema in private conversations has been much more willing to horse-trade than Manchin and has been more willing to make detailed proposals and counteroffers. 

While Sinema and Manchin have been portrayed as a monolithic centrist force in the media, Democratic aides and strategists say they are pursuing very separate agendas. 

“Yes, they talk, and yes, they’re friendly, and when they can team up, they do. But the two of them are not working together on some big priorities. They have different priorities,” said one Democratic strategist.

Sinema is viewed by Democratic colleagues as more resistant than Manchin to raising corporate and individual taxes, just as she is more amenable to cracking down on carbon emissions than the West Virginia senator, a longtime ally of his state’s coal industry. 

Sinema is proving to be a tougher riddle than Manchin for colleagues to figure out because she is a relatively new addition to the Senate and represents a state that narrowly voted for Biden and also elected a Democratic first-term senator, Mark Kelly, in November. She was first elected to the chamber in 2018, while Manchin was elected and assumed his Senate seat in 2010. 

And while Manchin has been a traditional New Deal Democrat throughout his career, Sinema, a former social worker, once described herself as a “former socialist” and the most liberal member of the Arizona State legislature before tacking to the center. 

“I understand Joe Manchin. I don’t understand Sinema, and I won’t pretend to,” said one senior Senate Democratic aide. “She is an enigma shrouded in mystery.” 

Tags Dick Durbin Joe Biden Joe Manchin Kyrsten Sinema Mark Kelly Rob Portman Shelley Moore Capito
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