Watch the Senate floor enough and you’ll notice Sen. Kyrsten Sinema regularly chatting with Mitch McConnell and his top deputy John Thune. Republicans have even tried to recruit her to their conference, and throw the Senate to the GOP.
Don’t worry though, Democrats: Sinema’s not becoming a Republican.
“No. Why would I do that?” the moderate Arizonan says in her trademark deadpan.
Thune, the GOP whip, wishes it were otherwise, confirming in an interview he’s pressed Sinema to join his party multiple times. But Sinema’s goal in an evenly split Senate isn’t to toss away Democrats’ majority, despite enduring months of criticism from progressives on her policy positions, rock-solid protection of the filibuster and yes, even her fashion choices.
Instead, Sinema seems to take most of it in stride, feeling justified in her approach after President Joe Biden signed her hard-fought bipartisan infrastructure bill on Monday. As she sought to cut deals with Republicans and shave down Biden’s party-line spending bill, she’s largely stayed mum no matter what her own party throws at her. Sinema wouldn’t respond to liberals who panned her bipartisan negotiations, just as she won’t discuss ongoing work on Biden’s companion bill focusing on climate and social spending.
Yet when she does decide to speak, she has plenty to say. As Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer constantly preaches unity in a 50-50 Senate, Sinema says her differences with other Democrats are natural and they shouldn’t paper over them.
“I’ve been concerned at the push that happens in both parties, this push to have no disagreements. To only have unity or to only speak with one voice. And some will say, ‘Oh, that is our strength,’” Sinema said. “Having some disagreement is normal. It is real, it is human. And it’s an opportunity for us as mature beings to work through it.”
In a 35-minute interview in her miniature, pink-hued Capitol hideaway office, Sinema dressed down Democratic leadership for setting expectations too high. She also defended the right of her critics to protest her, but not to follow her into a bathroom and “unfairly and illegally” victimize the students she teaches at Arizona State. Sinema also revealed why she’s constantly spotted on the floor chatting with GOP leader McConnell: “He has a dry sense of humor. It’s underrated.”
And she’s definitely fed up with the emerging niche literary genre regarding what she wears on the Senate floor — something her male colleagues don’t have to endure.
“It’s very inappropriate. I wear what I want because I like it. It’s not a news story, and it’s no one’s business,” Sinema said. “It’s not helpful to have [coverage] be positive or negative. It also implies that somehow women are dressing for someone else.”
It’s a rare retort to Sinema’s opponents. She’s responded to most criticism with silence, whether it’s jabs that she’s a Republican or that she’s imposing “tyranny” on Democrats. And on policy, the first-term senator has remained almost completely quiet during breakneck negotiations to finish Biden’s agenda.
Still, Sinema laid out some of her thinking, explaining that she generally supports adding paid leave to the Democrats’ social spending bill but not raising tax rates on corporations and some high-income earners, saying she “will not support tax policies that have a negative impact on our economic climate.” And, unlike her colleague Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), she views the bill’s climate provisions as the “most important part of what is under discussion.”
Yet, even after an extended interview, the first-term Democrat holds onto the air of mystery that’s become a signature part of her political brand. Sinema won’t say she’s running for reelection, nor will she respond to Rep. Ruben Gallego’s (D-Ariz.) flirtations with a primary challenge.
And even though she’s quietly informed Democrats for weeks that she’s supportive of Biden’s social spending and climate bill and publicly signaled she wants to clinch a deal, she still won’t explicitly say she’ll back it — even after the House passed her infrastructure legislation.
“If you’re in the middle of negotiating things that are delicate or difficult … doing it in good faith directly with each other is the best way to get to an outcome,” Sinema said just a few minutes after returning from Biden’s signing ceremony. “I’m still in the process of negotiating the second provision of the president’s agenda … and I don’t negotiate in the press.”
However, she will criticize her party for its complicity in setting unachievable, sky-high expectations, just like the Republicans who promised to repeal Obamacare under former President Donald Trump. A $3.5 trillion social spending bill, sweeping elections reform, a $15 minimum wage and changes to the filibuster rules were always a long shot with Sinema and Manchin as the definitive Democratic votes in the Senate.
“You’re either honest or you’re not honest. So just tell the truth and be honest and deliver that which you can deliver,” Sinema said. “There’s this growing trend of people in both political parties who promise things that cannot be delivered, in order to get the short-term political gain. And I believe that it damages the long-term health of our democracy.”
As Sinema defies labels and routinely frustrates Democrats with a brand of moderation that breaks from her activist roots in Arizona, something of a Sinema doctrine is emerging in her third year in the Senate, contrasting with Manchin’s constant commentary on Democrats’ agenda.
She prefers to keep her thoughts completely under wraps, confounding people in her party who want public statements detailing her views. She thinks it’s a style that works for her, her state and even her party.
Sinema’s colleagues are warming to it too, particularly after she negotiated a prescription drug reform deal that’s being added to the roughly $1.75 trillion spending bill. Though it falls short of progressive hopes of huge reform, she believes it balances lowering costs for seniors without stifling innovation, according to an aide.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) described Sinema as “very focused” and consistent. “It’s always frustrating to negotiate with someone with whom you have differences,” Warren said. “That’s the nature of the beast. But she clearly wants to make a deal and I respect that.”
“She definitely cuts a different profile,” added Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who dealt with Sinema extensively on the prescription drugs deal. “But in dealing with her colleagues she’s not the enigma that the punditry wants to make her out to be.”
There are some signs that Sinema’s approach could pay off politically too, provided she survives a primary. A September poll from OH Predictive Insights found she had a 40 percent favorability rating among Republicans, a contrast to fellow Arizonan Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly. The same poll found that 73 percent of Republicans viewed Kelly unfavorably.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), a prospective successor to McConnell, went as far as to say he “would be surprised if Republicans tried to unseat her” in 2024 if she runs.
Sinema sometimes even serves as a go-between with Republicans for her Democratic colleagues, capitalizing on the years she spent in both the House and Senate cultivating relationships with the GOP. She insists those relationships are not transactional but instead reflect the fact that “I’m a human who has friends.”
She may have a dearth of buddies in the House Progressive Caucus, which repeatedly delayed her infrastructure bill and then nearly sank it when a half-dozen Democrats voted against it. The way she sees it, Biden was able to sign that bill thanks to brave Republicans and the Congressional Black Caucus — not because progressive leaders eventually relented.
The CBC “did a lot of heavy lifting to get that bill across the finish line in the House,” Sinema said. “The 13 Republicans who voted yes on that bill in the House, and many of whom are now receiving death threats, they deserve a much greater share of thanks than they received … Speaker Pelosi did not have the Democratic votes to pass that bill on a one party vote.”
Despite Sinema granting a chatty interview, don’t expect to hear much from her publicly in the coming weeks during Democrats’ final push to pass their social spending plan. Even as progressives insinuate she’s bought off by the pharmaceutical industry or hampering Biden’s agenda, Sinema doesn’t feel a particular need to respond.
“I’ve been doing this work for almost 20 years and I make decisions based on what’s right for Arizona and what’s most important for Arizona families,” she said. “And, you know, the stories that folks want to write, that they’re making up? They can do that.”