Unapologetically Moderate, Democrat Kyrsten Sinema Says She's Focused On Results

Aug 4, 2021

Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona is batting away criticism that her bipartisan approach to legislating is bad for her party.

To Sinema, a moderate, bipartisanship is the way Washington should work.

"We know that the American people are asking for us to take action," she told NPR's All Things Considered. "What they don't want to see is us sit on our hands, waiting until we get every single thing that we want. ... That all-or-nothing approach usually leaves you with nothing."

Sinema occupies a crucial position in a Senate divided 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans. She and fellow moderate Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., in particular have managed to wield outsize power over their party since Democrats need their support to move their agenda forward.

She has been leading Democrats in the bipartisan effort to pass infrastructure legislation, which the Senate could vote on next week. And after she helped pull together that agreement, she said that while she will "support beginning" debate on a plan to deliver other aspects of President Biden's economic agenda, she does "not support a bill that costs $3.5 trillion." That almost certainly means Democrats will have to scale back their ambitions.

More progressive Democrats argue that lawmakers such as Sinema and Manchin are harming the party's chance to pass even bolder policy and potentially keeping control of Congress in next year's midterm elections.

In a tweet last week, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., accused Sinema of turning her back on her own party on key legislation.

Ocasio-Cortez accused Sinema of "tanking your own party's investment on childcare, climate action, and infrastructure" and of "choosing to exclude members of color from negotiations."

Sinema said she would not respond directly to the criticism and that instead she is "laser-focused on advancing our legislation."

She added, "It's easy to launch criticisms and political attacks. As folks know, I don't do that. But what I do do, is stay absolutely focused on getting solutions done that impact the people of our country."

To the larger consideration of whether Sinema's approach would help or hurt Democrats maintain control of Congress, Sinema said her focus is on "getting stuff done." Noting her nearly 20 years in public office, she said that in her experience, "If you do the work and deliver results for the people that you represent, they'll continue to send you back to do that job."

Still, the Arizona Democrat argued she would be able to make progress for the American people even if Republicans were in charge.

Aside from the infrastructure bill, Democrats are hoping to pass other initiatives related to climate, health care and child care as part of the planned $3.5 trillion budget resolution. For the Senate to pass that plan, they'll need every member of the caucus, including Sinema. And that's before it reaches the House of Representatives and the most progressive wing of the party, which is hoping for big change.

Although Sinema said she won't support a budget package of that size, she did not provide any response on what she thought an acceptable size would be, "and the reason's quite simple: We haven't even introduced the legislation. We haven't even started it."

Elena Burnett and Courtney Dorning produced and edited the audio interview.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In the weeks and months that we have been hearing about the trillion-dollar infrastructure deal, we have also heard a lot about Joe Manchin, moderate Democratic senator from West Virginia - questions like, how high is he willing to go? Ultimately, what would it take to get him to sign on to the package?

Well, we're going to speak now with another moderate Democrat who was equally central to the deal, Arizona's Kyrsten Sinema. Her answers to those questions were just as important. Sinema led talks for the Democrats, and she helped deliver that rarest of things in Washington - a bipartisan deal. Well, as a final Senate vote nears, she joins me to talk about how they got here, what might happen next.

Senator, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

KYRSTEN SINEMA: Well, it's wonderful to be with you today.

KELLY: So you are in the homestretch on this bill. I gather senators are offering amendments on the floor right now. And I want to ask about this bipartisan group of senators - 22 of you, I guess - who've pledged you're going to stick together through this process, come what may. How's it going?

SINEMA: Well, it's going really well. And first, I want to say that it's really exciting to be in the middle of this open legislative process. Folks are openly debating the policies in our bill. We've been moving forward on amendments. And so far, we've been thrilled to receive the support of 2/3 of the Senate, which has shown broad and bipartisan support. And the debate we're having on the proposal right now is showing the strength of that coalition. And we're excited that as we move through these coming days, you'll continue to see a strong and bipartisan show of support that gets our bill across the finish line. We're pretty excited about this.

KELLY: It's just striking, listening to you, how rare it is to speak to a senator from either party who tells me things are going really well and it's all really bipartisan. I mean, this is - it's so rare. Does it create a kind of roadmap for other areas where you could collaborate with Republicans, do you think?

SINEMA: Well, those who know me know that that's the way I've always operated. And so, you know, I tell folks I know that bipartisanship sounds outdated to many pundits. But the difficult work of crossing party lines, collaborating, compromising - that's what's expected at home in Arizona. And I also believe that it is still the best way to identify realistic solutions, right? So what we see happening in our political discourse today are these all-or-nothing political battles. But they typically result in nothing, no action at all. Or you'll see policies that reverse back-and-forth, back-and-forth, as administrations and party control changes hands. And that type of whipsaw action isn't good for our country.

KELLY: Your approach has come under some criticism - a lot of criticism, including from your fellow Democrats in Congress. New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, in a tweet, accused you of tanking your party's investment on child care, climate change and infrastructure. She accused you of excluding members of color from negotiations. May I ask you to respond to that?

SINEMA: Well, I'm not going to because I am laser-focused on advancing our legislation, which will be a historic investment for Arizona and American families, businesses and communities. So what I will do is talk about the work that we've done. You know, we worked for long hours, over many, many months. This was a broadly bipartisan group, 22 Democrats and Republicans in the Senate working together, with a shared commitment to find common ground and get this done. And you know, it's easy to launch criticisms and political attacks. As folks know, I don't do that. But what I do do is stay absolutely focused on getting solutions done that impact the people of our country.

KELLY: Well, and I'm not interested in wasting time on political attacks and spats back-and-forth, interparty or across party lines. But the bigger question of what is at stake here is part of what I suspect is on Representative Ocasio-Cortez's mind. It's not just immediate legislation before you, but Democratic control of Congress. I mean, the question that's being raised is whether your position could risk losing Democratic majorities in the House and Senate. Does it?

SINEMA: Well, what I'm really interested in doing is making a difference for the people of our state - the state of Arizona - and for our country. And the legislation we're working on and expect to finish this week will make a difference in the everyday lives of the American people. That's Rule No. 1.

KELLY: Of course. But you can't get that done - you can't get what you want to get done - without Democrats controlling Congress, no?

SINEMA: Well, I think I could. I mean, this is a bipartisan effort. We are working really well together in getting this done. The second thing that we'll be doing after we do this bill is having a conversation about the other priorities that President Biden has talked about in earlier conversations and speeches. And that's the budget resolution that we'll get to after we do this legislation. And when we turn to that effort, I'll give it 100% of my full attention and commitment, just as I have on this infrastructure package. And that's my approach, is to give 100% to the challenge that we're facing, to work hard with my colleagues to find common ground and to make a difference in the lives of everyday people across this country. And we take those pieces of legislation one at a time.

KELLY: Just to make sure I'm hearing you correctly, you support Democrats retaining control of Congress, yes? This is something you'd like to see continue.

SINEMA: Well, I am one of those. So yes, absolutely (laughter).

KELLY: It just doesn't sound like you're particularly worried about that side of the calculus here.

SINEMA: Well, what I'm worried about is getting stuff done. And my experience has been, in the close to 20 years that I've been serving in public office, is that when you put your head down and do the work and get stuff done, that the constituents you serve see that, and they choose to send you back to your current office or, in my case, to send me to higher office over the course of the nearly 20 years that I've been serving. And so I guess what I would say is, the proof is in the pudding. If you do the work and deliver results for the people that you represent, they'll continue to send you back to do that job.

KELLY: Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema, a Democrat.

Thank you so much for speaking with us, Senator.

SINEMA: It's been a pleasure.

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