Sen. Kyrsten Sinema says, 'I don't bend to pressure from either party'

Yvonne Wingett Sanchez
Arizona Republic

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema is building working relationships with her Republican colleagues even as Democratic frustrations mount over her unwillingness to change Senate rules to ease passage of President Joe Biden's legislative agenda.

In a chamber marked by extreme partisanship, Sinema, D-Ariz., is winning praise from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and other GOP senators for her unflinching stance against jettisoning the filibuster, the controversial procedural maneuver that will require Biden's priorities to clear 60-vote hurdles in the evenly divided 100-member Senate.

Sinema, who campaigned as an independent-minded centrist, has been quietly reaching across the aisle since she joined the Senate in 2019. With the Senate split 50-50, she is hoping those connections will bear fruit in the form of bipartisan deals to raise and permanently change the minimum wage and process asylum-seekers more quickly at the U.S.-Mexico border. 

"She isn’t someone who is driven by the crowd. She is driven by her own conscience and by her desire to do what she thinks is right for the people of her state and the country,” Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, told The Arizona Republic. “Sometimes she stands alone. Other times she is able to get groups of people to join with her. 

“But I would say she is one of the very rare members of the Senate that is interested in getting things done. Not just talking, but in getting things done.” 

Getting things does has been a mantra for Sinema, both on the campaign trail and on Capitol Hill. At 44, she represents a swing state whose political divide is reflected in its electorate, state Legislature and 9-member U.S. House delegation. 

The Gaggle:Listen to a conversation with Sen. Kyrsten Sinema

And for the first time in her political career from progressive activist to moderate Democrat, Sinema finds herself serving in the majority party, a position of power that gives her more leeway to set her own bipartisan course.

“I think this is saying, look, if I’m going to stand against the filibuster, I better, on the flip side, show that I’m going to work with Republicans and that I really mean what I say when I say bipartisanship is a good thing,” said Lara Brown, associate professor and the director of the Graduate School of Political Management at the George Washington University.

Mitch McConnell, Ted Cruz appreciate her

In a nod to her institutionalist sensibilities, Sinema won’t support ending the legislative filibuster, which allows minority Senate Republicans to put a check on Democratic legislative ambitions.

Abolishing the legislative filibuster would allow Democrats to pass bills with a 51-vote simple majority. Vice President Kamala Harris would cast the votes needed to break any 50-50 ties.

Though the filibuster seems to have evolved into a partisan cudgel to block bills from moving forward, Sinema sees it as a way to force moderation and bipartisanship in a broken Washington.

She has defended the rule, along with Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., another centrist Senate Democrat.

It’s a position that has ignited the fury of the left. There’s no indication that 10 Republican senators are willing to compromise to pass Biden’s major, trillion-dollar liberal agenda.

At the same time, Sinema's stance has Republicans cheering and McConnell asking fellow GOP senators to speak kindly about her.

“Senator Sinema respects the institution and knows changing the filibuster would destroy the very essence of the Senate,” McConnell told The Republic in a written statement. “I applaud her courage in the face of enormous pressure from her own party.” 

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who often clashes with McConnell and other more establishment GOP figures, said he has encouraged Sinema and other Democrats to stand up to Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.

Cruz has worked closely with Sinema on airline safety issues in the era of COVID-19. 

She now chairs the Senate Commerce Committee’s aviation subcommittee, where Cruz is ranking GOP member. 

“Look, I appreciate that she doesn't typically engage in the overheated partisan rhetoric that both sides sometimes get into — I think that's beneficial,” Cruz told The Republic after speaking at a Turning Point USA Young Latino Leadership Summit in Phoenix. “Kyrsten is one of the few in the Democratic conference who would like to see us work together more.”

 Asked if he thought Sinema would waver on her filibuster position, he answered, “I certainly hope not. She says she won’t. But I have no doubt that Schumer and the far left are being vicious with her right now.”

Sinema says filibuster stance won't change

For her part, Sinema dismissed the talk of political pressure.

“There’s a lot of talk about, ‘Oooh, the pressure is mounting and the pressure is out there,’” Sinema said in an interview with The Arizona Republic’s political podcast, The Gaggle, released Wednesday.

“But as everybody knows, I don't bend to pressure from either party, and I just stay focused on what I think is right, and delivering for Arizonans.” 

Still, her critics on the left are doing their best to keep the heat on Sinema.

In Arizona, where progressives call Sinema by her first name and helped make her the state's first elected female senator, calls are mounting for a candidate to challenge her in the 2024 Democratic primary election.

Arizona Democratic activists once celebrated her more casual cultural approach in a stuffy chamber dominated by white men, but now try to shame her with memes of her viral March 5 thumbs-down vote to consider raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour as part of a COVID-19 relief package that moved under rules requiring a simple-majority vote instead of the 60-vote filibuster threshold.

“Sinema feels like she’s been actively, like against, or not for these issues,” said Kyle Nitschke, 23, a progressive voter from Flagstaff who works at the university and has signed onto a proposed Arizona Democratic Party resolution calling on her to change her mind on the filibuster.

“It’s just really hard to see," Nitschke said. "I think she wants to be seen as an independent voice — I think that’s a huge thing. I’m hoping that there’s some, long-term game plan.” 

The left flank of her party views her as unhelpful to Democratic priorities even though Sinema has sided with her party on the most substantive policy votes.

She twice voted to convict former President Donald Trump in his Senate impeachment trials. 

Sinema is an original co-sponsor, for example, of the Democrat-led For the People Act, which would provide sweeping expansion of voters’ rights, election security, independent redistricting at a time when Republican-controlled state legislatures are enacting laws to restrict voting in the aftermath of Biden’s win. Schumer has said he intends to use all his might to pass the bill. 

But it faces long odds overcoming a filibuster, a point progressives are making in a new proposed resolution that calls on Sinema and Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., who has staked out a place in the political center, to publicly declare support for ending the filibuster and voting to eliminate it from Senate rules. 

Dozens and dozens of Democrats have signed in support of the anti-filibuster resolution, which could be considered by the state party at its May 22 meeting.

Sinema said she is not worried about rumblings of political challenges on the left.

Party pushback:Arizona Democratic activist looks to deny support for Sinema

And in virtual meetings with donors, she has signaled she’s not budging on the filibuster. It’s keeping in line, she said, with a campaign pledge she made to find compromise.

“Right now, there’s all this attention in Washington that's being paid to changing the Senate rules and procedures when, really, I think we should be paying attention to the way that lasting things get done,” Sine said. “The reality is that legislation that stands the test of time is created through both bipartisanship and compromise.”

What does Sinema want to do?

Sinema sounds almost conservative when talking about her long-term legislative goal, which she said is for her constituents to not have to think of the role of government in their lives, at all.

“I want Arizonans to, one, not have to think about their government very much. But two, when they do, to think to themselves, ‘Well, at least it's less bad than it used to be, it’s less painful than it used to be and Kyrsten’s done some work to make my life a little bit easier and a little bit better,’” she said. 

Sinema's commitment to moderation and her openness to compromise has helped her make friends in the Senate.

Those friendships are displayed on the chamber floor as Democrats and Republicans alike flock to her when she presides over the chamber, typically on Tuesdays. 

Her friendly shoulder pats and wide smiles beneath her mask demonstrate collegiality and comfort with members of both parties.

Sinema and Romney started working on a plan to raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 an hour prior to her no-vote on including the hike in the COVID-19 package. She said she has long supported increasing the figure but wanted it to be separate from the aid bill. 

Sinema told The Republic she looks to Arizona as a model state with its minimum wage that is adjusted annually for inflation. 

“Now’s not a great time to put out all those details because, one, we don’t have them nailed down yet, and two, we’re seeking to find that compromise and that middle ground,” she said of her and Romney's approach. 

Romney also declined to elaborate on the contours of the plan, which has taken shape in recent weeks through meetings with Sinema on Zoom, over the phone and in person. 

“We have a number in mind but we're not ready to publicize that yet,” Romney said during a phone interview from Washington. “She and I reached an understanding and a number and some other measures were included. But we want to make sure that we bring in other Republicans and Democrats to see if we can't get enough people on board to actually have it pass the Senate.”

As a border senator, and one who now chairs a subcommittee on border management, Sinema is working to distinguish herself as a workhorse willing to tackle an issue that has long stymied Congress: border security.

She recently unveiled legislation with Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, intended to relieve pressure at processing centers overwhelmed by migrants. The legislation would speed up adjudication of asylum claims, help border towns respond to spikes in the migrant population, and add additional protections for migrant children.   

In a media call announcing the legislation, Sinema and Cornyn made clear the bill was intended to solely address more practical, urgent needs along the border.

A breakthrough on the security front, they said, could lead to negotiations on immigration reform, and the future of "Dreamers," those brought to the U.S. as children without proper documentation or who overstayed legal visas.

“There’s a lot more we need to do, I believe, in the immigration space, but I’m just grateful to have a partner like Sen. Sinema who wants to ignore the divisive politics of this topic and just try to solve a problem,” Cornyn said. “I think that's what people are hungry for.”

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