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Kyrsten Sinema annoys White House but wins Republicans’ respect in Arizona

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When Kyrsten Sinema was a representative of a Democratic state in Arizona, she took a newly elected Republican colleague aside and gave him some friendly advice.

“She said she was a bomb thrower” when she first took office, recalls Kirk Adams, now a business and public affairs consultant at Consilium Consulting, referring to his habit of eliciting attention instead of legislating. “But she had learned that she hadn’t done anything that way.”

Fifteen years later, many of Sinema’s Democratic colleagues say she is throwing bombs again – this time against her own party. Now a U.S. Senator, Sinema has been instrumental in reducing the size and scope of President Joe Biden’s national legislative agenda, including a plan to raise taxes to pay for key elements of his Build Back spending program. Better.

With Republicans firmly opposed to Biden’s plan, Democrats need every vote to pass legislation in a 50-50 Senate, where Vice President Kamala Harris can cast a deciding vote. This gave Sinema and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, another frequent obstacle, inordinate power to make or break a proposal.

Sinema’s apparent intransigence has baffled Democrats in Washington and infuriated progressive voters who backed her at her home in Arizona. Among them is Jade Duran, secretary of the Maricopa County Democratic Party, the largest in the state and home to Phoenix.

Duran said she was thrilled when Sinema decided to run for the US Senate in 2018, given everything they had in common: both identify as members of the LGBT + community and have backgrounds of social activism. Today, however, she feels betrayed.

“To see what she is doing, actively working against the party and what we stand for, it’s really disappointing,” Duran said. “It’s almost smelly and disgusting to see what she does every day.” She added that she hoped a Democrat would challenge Sinema from the left in 2024.

Kyrsten Sinema with Joe Manchin, a Democratic senator from West Virginia who has often been another obstacle to Biden’s legislative plans © Jabin Botsford / The Washington Post / Getty

Like many in his party, Duran is furious with Sinema for his refusal to partially reverse former President Donald Trump’s tax cuts to help pay for Biden’s infrastructure plan. Sinema voted against Trump’s tax cuts at the time, leading many Democrats to claim that the former Green Party member over the following years became a tool for large corporate donors.

However, her stance appeared to soften somewhat this week, as she backed a proposal by Democrats Elizabeth Warren and Ron Wyden on Tuesday to introduce a 15% tax on America’s most profitable companies.

Sinema has also been accused of being in the pocket of the pharmaceutical industry after blocking a popular proposal by the Biden administration to allow federal government health plans to negotiate lower drug prices.

Whatever her motivations, it’s hard to reconcile Sinema’s recent positions with those of the young progressive who burst into Arizona politics more than 20 years ago. She was considered a radical in the state after campaigning for the underdog Ralph Nader crusade in his 2000 presidential run. The Arizona State Democratic Party declared her “too extreme.” to stand for election under his banner in 2002.

But two years later, she was elected Democrat and would soon become leader of the party’s progressive wing in Arizona. “The 2004 Sinema would work 24/7 to oust the 2021 Sinema from office,” said Barrett Marson, a longtime Republican political consultant in the state.

Sinema’s latest transformation, according to political consultants from both parties, is the calculated move of a politician trying to do whatever it takes to survive as a Democratic senator in Arizona.

The state has long been the bedrock of Western state conservatism, producing two Republican presidential candidates known for their independence of mind: Barry Goldwater and John McCain. “Kyrsten basically understands that in Arizona there’s a very independent streak and doesn’t like being told what to do,” Adams said.

In fact, some in the state believe she made a conscious attempt to emulate McCain’s “maverick” character, which gave her the space to occasionally vote against her party’s agenda – and still be rewarded by the voters of Arizona for its independence.

“McCain has never been very strong with his base, but what has made him successful is independent voter support and cross support. [from Democrats]”said Mike Noble, chief research officer and managing partner at OH Predictive Insights.”[Sinema] looks like a Democratic version of John McCain.

Kyrsten Sinema Volunteers at a Pantry in Phoenix
Democrats have become dominant in Arizona since the era of Sinema’s political hero, John McCain. For the first time in more than 70 years, the state has two U.S. Democratic senators © Matt York / AP

He noted that although Sinema’s approval ratings for progressives have plummeted, “she is catching up with moderates and has a favor rating of over 40 among Republicans.”

Among them is Doug Pitts, a 71-year-old Phoenix resident. “I think she’s very good, and I’m a Republican,” said Pitts, a retired construction industry executive. “I think she crossed party lines and acted in a more bipartisan and sober manner,” noting her positions on taxes, the budget and keeping the rule of filibustering.

The McCain comparison has its limits, however. McCain tended to stick with his party except on a few select issues, such as campaign finance regulations and his infamous “thumbs down”, which condemned his colleagues’ attempts to untangle Obamacare.

He was also very open with the press and enjoyed talking to reporters, while Sinema rarely gives interviews. Duran said she was frustrated that Sinema did not hold public meetings with voters. “She completely turned her back on us,” said Duran.

What has changed since McCain’s day is the reduced dominance of Republicans in Arizona. For the first time in more than 70 years, the state has two US Democratic senators: Sinema and Mark Kelly, who were elected in a special election in 2020. Now Arizona – for decades a deep red state reliable – took on a purple tint.

Like in Georgia, another reliable Republican state that narrowly opted for Biden in the 2020 election, Arizona’s change is the result of suburban voters turning their backs on Trump. In Arizona, Republicans insist it was a blip, not a trend – despite demographic shifts that appear to favor Democrats.

Sinema’s political maneuvering has clearly frustrated Biden, who last week gave him the backhanded compliment of being “as smart as the devil.” But the freshman senator certainly has the president’s attention: on Tuesday, he met Sinema and Manchin at the White House as he tried to get his domestic policy plan to cross the finish line before leaving for the United States. G20 and climate change summits later this week.

Sinema’s deal on the 15 percent corporate tax could signal a new willingness to negotiate. The senator had opposed the increase in the corporate tax rate, but said Warren-Wyden’s proposal was a “common sense” move that would ensure that large companies pay a “reasonable” minimum rate.

Adams, who became House Majority Leader in Arizona and worked closely with Sinema, said his political skills should not be underestimated.

“It is very effective in a legislative environment,” he said. “It’s really not surprising to me that she has become. . . the decisive vote in the US Senate.


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