With Biden's agenda hanging in the balance, progressive frustration with Sinema boils over

·6 min read

There’s one big question on Democrats’ minds in Washington: What does Kyrsten Sinema want?

The centrist Democratic senator from Arizona has made her opposition to her party’s $3.5 trillion budget proposal clear in recent months. But what she hasn’t articulated, at least publicly, is what sort of budget she would be comfortable voting for.

Sinema has been meeting with President Biden throughout the week, including three times on Tuesday alone, as Democrats scramble to save their domestic agenda amid infighting between the party’s moderate and progressive factions. Yet according to Politico, Sinema has been reluctant to outline what she wants from the budget, telling Biden she wants a bipartisan infrastructure deal to pass the House before she goes into specifics.

Sinema was part of a group of moderates who negotiated the bipartisan infrastructure bill that passed the Senate in August. But because many in the party’s progressive wing found the infrastructure deal lacking, Democratic leaders tied its fate to the passage of a $3.5 trillion budget that would invest more into fighting climate change and expanding the nation’s social safety net.

Bipartisan Senate negotiators, from left, Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
Bipartisan Senate negotiators, from left: Sens. Rob Portman, R-Ohio; Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz.; Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.; and Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

But for the budget to pass the Senate through a process known as reconciliation, it will need the support of all 50 members of the chamber’s Democratic caucus — including Sinema.

This two-track plan has been pushed for months by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The House was originally going to vote on the infrastructure bill this week, but dozens of Democrats have said they will not approve it until a broad budget “framework” is agreed upon. As a result, it’s unclear whether Pelosi will bring the infrastructure bill to the House floor before next week.

At the White House briefing Wednesday, press secretary Jen Psaki did not say if Sinema and her fellow moderate Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., had told the president what size budget they would be comfortable voting for. Instead, Psaki reiterated that Biden was “committed” to facilitating conversations within his party to get both pieces of legislation passed in a timely manner.

“We’re in the middle of it here. We’re not done with this," said Psaki. “The president has been clear about his commitment to get both pieces of legislation passed.” 

Still, Psaki remained vague on what the White House wanted the final budget to look like. She also sidestepped questions about Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who on Tuesday tweeted that House progressives should vote against the infrastructure deal if an agreement on the budget is not reached.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)
White House press secretary Jen Psaki. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)

“What our objective is, is working to determine what the path forward looks like,” said Psaki, who later noted that negotiations were at a “precarious and important” point. When asked if the White House was certain that the Arizona Democrat wanted a budget to eventually pass, Psaki answered in the affirmative.

“Our sense is she does,” Psaki said.

Sinema, whose office did not reply to a request for comment on this story, has said that the budget’s $3.5 trillion price tag is too high but hasn’t publicly stated what she wants the number to be. The New York Times has reported that she’s against raising taxes on corporations and wealthy Americans, undercutting one of the key funding proposals for the bill.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., who serves as the chairwoman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, says she has been asking moderates like Sinema and Manchin to come to the table to hammer out a budget deal. "They need to tell us what they don’t agree with, and we need to actually be able to negotiate,” she told NBC News.

With the fate of Biden’s ambitious domestic agenda hanging in the balance, frustration with Sinema has begun boiling over among liberals. On Tuesday, Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., a leading House progressive, told Axios that he was much more worried about Sinema than Manchin. “Manchin has always been reasonable,” he said. “At the end of the day, he’ll do what's needed for the party — he always has."

In a Yale conference call this week, meanwhile, Khanna reportedly called Sinema’s evasiveness “insane.”

Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., speaks to reporters as she leaves the Capitol. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)
Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., speaks to reporters as she leaves the Capitol. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

This week, Sinema held a fundraiser with some of the groups that are against the budget. And for his part, Manchin implied to CNN Wednesday morning that substantive negotiations aren’t even happening, saying, “All we need to do is pass the bipartisan infrastructure bill, sit down and start negotiating in good faith. That's it.”

Although Biden narrowly won Arizona in November and the state has two Democratic senators, it remains a battleground state, which could go some way to explaining why Sinema is so reluctant to outline what she wants from the budget. But she isn’t up for reelection until 2024, while her Arizona colleague, Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly — who is up for reelection next year and is a top Republican target — hasn’t come out against the proposal.

Although Sinema won’t have a primary challenger for another few years, Democrats in the state are still trying to pressure her to get on board with the party’s agenda. On Saturday, the Arizona Democratic Party overwhelmingly passed a resolution saying Sinema’s lack of support for the budget deal and abolishing the Senate filibuster to make it easier to pass legislation on issues like voting rights has put her at the risk of a possible vote of no confidence. And in a sign that mainstream Democrats are also increasingly angry with the senator, former Obama staffer and prominent liberal podcaster Jon Lovett said in a recent episode of “Pod Save America” that he was going to support Sinema’s primary opponent to such a degree he would break his finger donating.

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz. (Michael Brochstein/SOPA Images/Shutterstock)
Sen. Kyrsten Sinema. (Michael Brochstein/SOPA Images/Shutterstock)

The battle over the budget deal is not the first time Sinema has bucked her party since Biden became president. In March, she was one of eight Democrats to vote against a minimum wage increase in the pandemic relief bill and enraged many liberals by doing so with a jaunty thumbs-down. Her office claimed the criticism was sexist, and the following month Sinema posted a photo of herself wearing a ring that said, “F*** off.”

The fates of both the infrastructure bill and the budget bill remain in flux this week, with Psaki declining to commit that a vote would happen. Pelosi implied Wednesday morning that the scheduled infrastructure vote on Thursday could be delayed after progressives reiterated that they would go against it until a budget deal passed.

“We’re not proceeding with anything that doesn’t have agreement between the House and Senate, and that’s where we’re working,” Pelosi told reporters. “We can pass a bill anytime, but if it doesn’t have the support of the Senate, where are we?”

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