The most influential Democrat you never hear from


Kyrsten Sinema doesn’t often make big policy pronouncements. But when she does, Democrats had better listen.

Take the $15 hourly minimum wage that Democratic leaders want to add to a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package. Sinema, who became the first Democrat to win a Senate race in once deep-red Arizona in 30 years, is crystal clear: She’s against including it.

“What’s important is whether or not it’s directly related to short-term Covid relief. And if it’s not, then I am not going to support it in this legislation,” Sinema said in a telephone interview this week. “The minimum wage provision is not appropriate for the reconciliation process. It is not a budget item. And it shouldn’t be in there.”

Sinema’s opposition is a blow to Democrats’ hopes of bumping up the federal minimum wage through budget reconciliation to avoid a GOP filibuster, complicating follow-through on a campaign promise from Democrats and President Joe Biden. And her defense of the Senate’s age-old rules is likely to frustrate progressives eager to use every tool at their disposal to advance their priorities in a Senate where one wayward Democrat can mean the difference between a policy breakthrough and utter failure.

Her breaks with her liberal colleagues are both a reflection of her state, which she won by a narrow margin in 2018, and her temperament. But the former state legislator, House member and now first-term senator has literally never served in the majority before — so she feels the minority’s pain.

It’s just one of the things that makes the 44-year-old Democrat one of the most quirky and interesting members of the stodgy Senate. She often wears a bright-colored wig to vote, drawing wide eyes from her colleagues. She waits for a single elevator most of the time, once peeking into a jam-packed vessel and declaring it a “Covid elevator.” The walls of her office are a loud purple, accented by leopard patterns.

And though she’s more attentive to Democratic Caucus meetings than she was in the minority, she still keeps Republicans at least as close as members of her own party. She was a pretty lonely Democrat during former President Donald Trump’s last State of the Union speech, standing and applauding at times. Now she talks to President Joe Biden’s team just about every day.

“She’s not someone who cares about convention and the way things were,” said Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), a friend and ally. “She recognizes the real tradition of a Republic, which is that we are elected not to put our finger in the air to determine the direction of the wind.”

Despite being one of the youngest, and let’s face it, hippest members of the chamber, Sinema holds views that can be as old-school as any of the Senate’s long-timers’. Not only does she want to keep the filibuster, she wants to rebuild it. And the end-around idea of overruling the parliamentarian to jam whatever Democrats want to in a budget reconciliation bill is not going to happen on Sinema’s watch either.

“There is no instance in which I would overrule a parliamentarian’s decision,” Sinema said. “I want to restore the 60-vote threshold for all elements of the Senate’s work.”

Sinema’s stance largely aligns with Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), another senator who has narrowed Democrats’ ambitions since they won the Senate last month. Their styles diverge from there.


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