Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona apparently doesn't want a future in politics. One has to win the votes of at least one party or another to do that, and Sinema is all but guaranteeing herself a primary challenge on the left.
Sinema was a general pain in the butt during President Joe Biden's urgent efforts earlier this year to pass pandemic relief, but Biden and other Democrats still got most of the what they wanted out of that $1.9 trillion measure. It wasn't perfect, but it included direct payments, an extension of unemployment benefits, child tax credits (i.e. a tax cut for American families), and COVID-19 funds for schools, municipalities and states, among other initiatives.
Next, Sinema insisted on taking a central role in negotiating a trillion-dollar bipartisan infrastructure bill that progressive Democrats panned and would have much rather simply rolled into the larger Democrats-only budget bill.
But progressives voted to advance that bill anyway with the understanding that the $3.5 trillion budget bill would include key priorities like Medicare expansion, climate change initiatives, affordable child care, and paid family leave, among many others.
For over a month, Sinema has been signaling general discontent over the size of the budget bill—which will mostly be paid for anyway. But over the past week, Sinema has made it clear she wants to take a hatchet to several of progressive Democrats' biggest priorities, which also happen to be wildly popular with voters and great politics for the midterms.
Overall, Sinema's objections to the big-picture investment along with key provisions in the $3.5 trillion budget bill have helped provide cover for a swath of moderate congressional Democrats to voice their own objections and potentially talk themselves out of voting for it. Simply put, Sinema is stirring the pot to no good effect and could wind up tanking both the $3.5 trillion budget bill and the bipartisan infrastructure bill.
But let's start with the provision allowing Medicare to negotiate lower prescription drug prices, which polls at nearly 90% according to the Kaiser Family Foundation—a big part of the reason why vulnerable Democrats in swing seats are desperate to include it in the Democrats-only bill. A recent Gallup survey also found that roughly 7% of Americans have been unable to pay for prescribed drugs over the last three months and 10% have been skipping doses to keep medical costs under control.
The drug pricing provision is almost assuredly the most popular provision in the bill, but Sinema has reportedly told the White House she objects to the versions in the House and Senate bills along with one that has been advanced by a House moderate as an alternative. The drug pricing provision is also critical to funding the bill. Democrats estimate it could save the government anywhere from $500 billion to $700 billion, which they intend to invest in expanding Medicare coverage to hearing, dental, and vision care.
Four House Democrats on key committees voted against the drug pricing provision last week—a move Sinema's opposition surely encouraged.
But Sinema hasn't stopped there. Now she wants to add restrictions around who's eligible for federal help with pre-K and community college—which Biden originally hoped to make accessible across the board. It's all targeted toward reducing the size of the $3.5 trillion investment—which again, doesn't need to be a focus since Democrats plan to raise taxes on the nation's wealthiest individuals and corporations to pay for the bill. Why not simply find a way to fund important safety-net provisions rather than whittle them down?
The broader question politically, is WTF is Sinema doing? She is almost certainly inviting a Democratic primary in 2024. Her maneuvering is so bizarre that some people posit she's planning on getting out of politics altogether and instead landing a lucrative lobbying gig. Just today, a politically astute resident in Arizona made the case on TPM that Sinema might be planning to go independent. The one silver lining in that TPM piece is the fact Sinema has repeatedly been getting credit for already delivering for Arizonans based on the bipartisan infrastructure bill (that isn’t even law yet). If she manages to tank that bill, that point of praise would entirely dry up—which would be a political disaster for her.
If Sinema is planning on staying in politics, it seems a horrible misread of the politics to tick off Democrats in your own state while taking a whack at a drug pricing provision that is almost universally popular among voters across the political spectrum. And according to Civiqs tracking, Democrats are really ticked off.
(Note: This graph was updated on Sept. 22 to reflect the impact of Sen. Sinema skipping the Jan. 6 commission vote that she also said was “critical.”)