WASHINGTON ― Democrats are increasingly pointing a finger at Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema as the major holdup to making progress on President Joe Biden’s agenda, with sources close to the White House joining progressives in portraying Sinema as the primary obstacle to reaching a deal.
Sinema is famously opaque. She avoids reporters in the Senate hallways. She rarely communicates even with key Democratic constituency groups in her home state of Arizona ― the head of the state AFL-CIO does not have her phone number. She routinely attends high-dollar fundraisers in D.C. ― including one this week ― and is outwardly disdainful of progressives.
That opaqueness is now leading to open frustration among progressives and a quieter frustration among many moderate Democrats and others close to Biden’s administration.
Sinema has refused to deliver specifics about what she would like to see in a reconciliation package, and the comments that have leaked ― a resistance to any and all hikes in the corporate or personal income tax rates ― aren’t considered by her Democratic colleagues as serious starting points for negotiation. (The existing plan for the Build Back Better Act would spend roughly $3.5 trillion over a decade, raising most of the money from tax increases on people making more than $400,000 a year and on corporations.)
“This is basically the entire House Democratic Caucus on one side, 48 senators on one side, the president on one side, and really the obstacle is Sinema. I mean, it’s really that simple,” Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), a progressive lawmaker, told HuffPost on Tuesday.
“The president’s leaned in on Sinema to give a number, she hasn’t. He’s leaned in on giving a framework, she hasn’t. Leaned in on discussing it in detail, she hasn’t,” he added.
Sinema attended three meetings at the White House with Biden and other administration officials on Tuesday, and White House officials went to Capitol Hill on Wednesday to meet with her there. Biden postponed a scheduled trip to Chicago this week so he could continue negotiations with her and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) ― another holdout ― as his legislative agenda hangs in the balance.
Jim Manley, a veteran Democratic strategist who was a top aide to former Sens. Ted Kennedy and Harry Reid, said Manchin’s and Sinema’s continued refusals to specify their demands after multiple meetings with Biden and White House staff is “disrespectful” to the presidency.
“I find it absolutely outrageous that Sen. Manchin or Sen. Sinema has spent so much time at the White House, including one-on-ones with the president, and they haven’t shown their cards yet,” Manley told HuffPost. “I’ve never seen anything like this. It’s disrespectful to our president as the leader of the Democratic Party. If only out of basic respect for the presidency, you need some wiggle room.”
During Wednesday’s press briefing, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the administration has the “sense” that Sinema hopes to eventually support the package. She insisted the White House remains optimistic about talks with Sinema and Manchin.
“We don’t really have the luxury to be frustrated around here,” she said.
Progressives in the House are threatening to revolt and vote against passage of Biden’s infrastructure bill on Thursday unless they have some sort of agreement from moderates that they will support the second half of the president’s agenda, the Build Back Better Act.
House Budget Committee Chair John Yarmuth (D-Ky.) was one of several Democrats who sounded totally exasperated by the holdout senators on Tuesday, though most tended to complain about both Sinema and Manchin.
“Neither Manchin nor Sinema has ever said that they didn’t like anything about the substance of the bill, the things we were trying to do,” Yarmuth said. “And so how in the world are we supposed to figure out what they want?”
Rep. Richard Neal (D-Mass.), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee and a key architect of the Build Back Better legislation, said his committee has worked with experts for weeks to come up with various tax proposals that could accommodate different ways of raising specific amounts of revenue, but that the senators haven’t specified how much spending they could support, meaning Neal doesn’t know how much revenue the bill would need to raise.
“We just need them to say what’s the top line over there, which there’s always been a bit of reticence about saying,” Neal told reporters.
Part of the reason frustration has increasingly focused on Sinema is other obstacles have faded. For instance, many progressives’ suspicion of moderate Rep. Josh Gottheimer’s (D-N.J.) efforts to pass the infrastructure bill have faded as they’ve realized one of his top priorities ― the reinstatement of the state and local income tax deduction ― can only be achieved through the reconciliation process.
Sinema and Manchin are often paired together, but Manchin has worked with many of his Democratic colleagues for a decade or more and has consistently been there when his party has needed him. Democrats are more willing to give Manchin room to maneuver because he is a Democrat who represents an overwhelmingly Republican state.
Sinema’s shorter tenure, close-to-the-vest style and frequent efforts to build relationships with Republicans ― she often sits on their side of the aisle in the Senate chamber ― simply means there’s been less time to develop trust. Biden also carried her state in the 2020 election.