Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, the Democrat-turned-Independent from Arizona, has managed to be in the middle of Senate dealmaking on infrastructure and gun safety while serving as a stubborn obstacle to progressive reform on other fronts.
She has declared herself pro-choice and co-sponsored the John Lewis Voting Rights Act yet stands steadfast for the filibuster used by Republicans to block action on voting laws and abortion rights. She has won praise from the GOP side of the aisle, while one angry progressive protester has gone so far as to follow the senator into a bathroom.
Sinema is being called out by U.S. Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Arizona, a down-the-line progressive who has announced that he is running for Sinema’s seat. That promises to be a marquee Senate race next year. “Supporting legislation you know won’t pass as long as the filibuster is in place isn’t just useless: It’s insulting,” Gallego said in a statement last week.
An evenly-divided Senate has bestowed unusual influence on Sens. Sinema and Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia, both self-described centrists. Manchin basks in the limelight and appears on networks’ Sunday talk shows. Sinema dodges interviews and operates backstage.
Last September, however, Democrats watched in dismay as Sinema journeyed to the McConnell Center at the University of Louisville, and was introduced by its namesake, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. The GOP stalwart introduced her and showered praise on his first-term Democratic (at the time) colleague.
“I’ve only known Kyrsten for four years . . . but she is, in my view, the most effective first-term senator I’ve seen,” said McConnell, a veteran of the Senate for 38 years. “She is, today, what we have too few of in the Democratic Party, a genuine moderate and dealmaker.”
A noted naysayer, McConnell praised Sinema’s role in the Senate’s accomplishments under tenuous Democratic control. She was, said Mitch, “right in the middle of, if not the principal leader of, the $1.2-trillion infrastructure package and first gun-reform plan in 28 years.”
Why the praise? McConnell was obviously trying to get the “gentle lady from Arizona” to switch parties, and once again make him the Senate Majority Leader. She is a Republican ally on the two vital issues, voting rights and abortion rights.
A key GOP goal, dating back to the Reagan years, has been to suppress voting by Democratic-leaning constituencies, from African Americans to young people to the working poor. They’ve deployed gambits ranging from bans on ballot drop boxes to refusal to accept student ID cards as voter qualification. Republicans have gerrymandered House district and legislative boundaries, to detriment of urban voters.
The Republicans, thanks to McConnell’s connivance, packed the Supreme Court. He blocked President Obama from naming a successor to deceased U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, and pushed through Senate confirmation of Justice Amy Comey Barrett less than a month before Joe Biden was elected President. Justices Barrett and Neil Gorsuch were stalwarts in the majority that overturned Roe v.Wade, a decision that made abortion rights no longer a protected right in America.
Sinema took the stage in Louisville after McConnell’s glowing introduction. She made no apologies for stands that blocked the John Lewis Voting Rights Act and abortion rights from Senate floor action. She dissed progressive Democratic colleagues with these words: “Those of you who are parents in the room know the best thing you can do for your child is not give them everything they want. And that’s important to the U.S. Senate as well.” The Arizona senator made the case for a “slow and deliberative” Senate which resists “partisan pressure” and keeps the majority from going “too far.”
In practical terms, that means a 60-vote majority is needed to get non-budget legislation through the “world’s greatest deliberative body.” Watch C-Span and you’ll see votes on judicial and cabinet nominees subject to votes that limit debate.
The votes are dull compared to days when the Senate’s “Solid South” had to hold the floor against civil rights. Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-
Louisiana SC, holds the record, speaking for 24 hours and 18 minutes. Sen. Barry Goldwater, R-Arizona, asked Thurmond to yield the floor on a procedural point, so as Strom could rush to the bathroom and relieve himself.
In 1934, Louisiana Sen. Huey Long spiced up debate with a 15-hour stemwinder, with the Kingfish giving out recipes for Cajun cooking. Recently, however, the longest speech has been a dull 13-hour stemwinder by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, McConnell’s seatmate.
Sinema did work, in tandem with Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisconsin, in rounding up Senate votes to enshrine federal recognition of same-sex marriage. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has suggested that the Roe v. Wade reversal should open the door to “revisit” the court’s 2015 decision making marriage equality legal across the country.
Fumed Gallego about Sinema: “If you’re not willing to do the only thing that will actually protect abortion rights at a time when they are under attack, how can you call yourself pro-choice? You’re either pro-choice or pro-filibuster . . . you can’t be both. Not anymore.”
Sinema can be defended on grounds that there are only a few pro-choice Republicans in the Senate. Still, Lyndon Johnson busted a Southern filibuster by twisting arms and sweet talking. A 71-vote Senate majority cleared the way for passage of the seminal 1964 Civil Rights Act.
The 2024 Arizona Senate race looks like another donnybrook. Sinema has not declared if she is running for reelection, but raised $2.1 million in the first quarter of 2023. She has tapped Republican sources. A total of $280,000 came from employees of the Blackstone Group, the investment colossus, with $196,000 from the Carlyle Group, which enriched former President George H.W. Bush. She had nearly $10 million in the bank at the start of the year. Gallego reported raising $3.7 million in the just-completed quarter, with $2.7 million cash on hand.
Just one Republican has declared, Pinal County Sheriff Mark Lamb, an outspoken Trump supporter. The Arizona GOP has undergone convulsions, fielding a 2022 ticket of election deniers, all of whom lost. Defeated gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake has refused to acknowledge defeat, and is a possible Senate nominee.
Sinema has been lots of things in her political life. She started as a Green Party activist in 2000, followed by service as a Democrat in the Arizona Legislature and House of Representatives. She switched registration to Independent last December. She has, however, kept her committee assignments and continued to caucus with the Democrats.
She declared her independence in her McConnell Center speech: “If you don’t fit in in today’s Washington, trust me. They want to kick you out. I’ve never really wanted to fit in. Not in Washington and not anywhere else.”