Sen. Kyrsten Sinema explains her strategy on infrastructure, spending bills

Yvonne Wingett Sanchez
Arizona Republic

PHOENIX – In the aftermath of Democrats’ walloping by Republicans in Virginia’s elections last week, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema is doubling down on her model for legislating, which just led to a major victory on physical infrastructure, but has laid bare ongoing intraparty friction within her party as it continues to wrestle to pass President Joe Biden’s $1.85 trillion social spending package. 

Democratic losses in the blue state of Virginia — and a close call for Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy in blue New Jersey — signaled to Sinema, D-Ariz., that the electorate is tired of political squabbling.

The election trend lines showed that voters simply value results, she said.

“The first lesson is that when you spend a lot of time bickering among each other in terms of process and trying to search for new strategies to try and gain something out that’s not well-received by the American public, they just want you to work together and get stuff done,” she told The Arizona Republic on Tuesday. 

“The second part of that lesson that I think is important for us is to remember that Americans and everyday people just want a normal government that operates. … Voters are looking for people who just want to solve problems and get things done and are talking about how to do it in a very practical and pragmatic way that is within the circle of what’s normal.”

It is a postmortem that again puts Sinema at odds with her own party. Sinema battled liberal Democrats in the House of Representatives in a drawn-out process that left her infrastructure plan bottled up for months, along with the larger social spending bill that remains unresolved. 

Some in the House view Sinema as blocking the agenda voters nationally ratified with Biden’s election in 2020.

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., left, walks into the Senate Chamber following a Democratic strategy meeting at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, Oct. 26, 2021. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Sinema said the 2021 election losses underscored a message she has conveyed to colleagues since arriving in the Senate in 2019: Constituents care more about their day-to-day stressors — such as the costs of homes, vehicles, food and medicine — than they do political scorekeeping. 

“What they’re doing in the electoral process is saying that out loud, over and over again by who they’re choosing to elect," she said.

More:Democrat dust-up over infrastructure underscores Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema's hold on Biden's agenda

What Sinema is for and against

Sinema batted back criticism by liberals in her party who blame her as a key obstacle to getting things done. 

Sinema and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., cited fiscal concerns over the evolving human safety net package known as the “Build Back Better” plan. It went from a wish list that originally topped $6 trillion, then fell to $3.5 trillion and is now an estimated $1.75 trillion.

The proposed package would provide free preschool for more than 6 million kids, expand Medicare coverage, raise Pell grants to help offset college tuition, and spend billions to combat climate change. 

While she helped scale back the overall price tag, Sinema pushed for provisions to mitigate climate change that remain in the tentative framework.

She withheld support from Democrats’ more expansive drug-pricing initiative in favor of one that would limit the cost of prescription drugs for Medicare recipients to $2,000 a year.

She has refused to increase tax rates on corporations and high-income earners, which many congressional Democrats wanted as a way to offset the package’s price tag. But she has supported a minimum corporate tax that will ensure the nation’s largest businesses don’t pay zero income tax.

Sinema said she is still expecting changes from the House’s package, namely “revenue raisers” that she did not specifically identify. 

“Folks have heard me say over and over again that I will only support revenue provisions that do not negatively impact Arizona’s economic growth.”

It is all part of a middle-way approach that has drawn outrage from progressives, moderates, and others who accuse her of holding the party’s agenda hostage. 

She appears unbothered by the criticism — and the threats of a primary challenge in 2024, when she is up for reelection. Sinema won her first Senate race in 2018 against then-Rep. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., by 2.3 percentage points.

“I’m not thinking about 2024,” she said. “What I am thinking about is the work that I’m doing for Arizona right now.” 

More:Manchin won't yet back Biden's social spending package, calls for infrastructure bill vote

Sinema wouldn’t say if she believes a progressive Democrat could win a statewide race in Arizona, a traditionally red state that turned purple in the era of former President Donald Trump.

“I leave the punditry to the pundits, and that’s not part of my job description,” she said. 

More:Activists ambush Sen. Kyrsten Sinema in public bathroom over immigration, infrastructure

Inside the Senate, Sinema said her relationships with her Democratic colleagues — including progressives — has helped secure provisions for the reconciliation package. 

She cited work with Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., to push for a corporate minimum tax rate that would raise billions of dollars from the nation’s ultra-wealthy billionaires and corporations, an alternative she proposed to raising corporate tax rates. 

“My approach was to focus on tax avoidance and those companies that are paying nothing in taxes while every other regular company across the country is paying the full freight on a quarterly basis, and that just didn’t seem fair and equitable to me,” she said. 

“That wouldn’t have been possible if I didn’t have those deep, trusting relationships with members of my own party,” Sinema added.

Some activists who support those liberal senators have tested Sinema’s patience. 

Citing a confrontation at Arizona State University that extended to recording video of Sinema and her students in a women’s bathroom, Sinema said activists from the nonprofit Living United for Change in Arizona, or LUCHA, were more interested in “political theater” than honest conversation.

“I have, for the last 19 years, worked to create a safe and intellectually challenging environment for my students,” she said. “And on that Sunday morning, that environment was breached by illegal and unlawful activity and that is not an appropriate response to a disagreement on either policy or strategy.” 

Sinema said she and her staff have met multiple times with LUCHA representatives, despite liberals’ claims of her inaccessibility. 

The ASU Police Department has asked the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office to charge four people with misdemeanors after they recorded themselves protesting against Sinema, when they interrupted a class she was teaching and continued to follow and record her on the campus.

MCAO has asked ASU for additional information, an ASU police spokesperson said Tuesday. He said the request does not change the police department’s request for charges.

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