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He likes bourbon. She, wine. He’s been in the Senate for nearly four decades. She, since 2019. But, at the end of the day, both Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema are big fans of an upper chamber gummed up by arcane rules.
Sinema made the pilgrimage on Monday to Kentucky to speak at the McConnell Center at the University of Louisville, a familiar stop for Senate institutionalists to pay a polite nod to the chamber’s top Republican and master of its byzantine nature. And, once at McConnell’s alma mater, she was treated to a Brink’s truck of praise for her unwillingness to fall in line with the rest of her Democratic Party. It wasn’t entirely magnanimous.
“She is, today, what we have too few of in the Democratic Party: a genuine moderate and a dealmaker,” McConnell said in his introduction, which also described her as “the most effective first-term senator I’ve seen.”If obstruction is a proxy for efficacy, then there’s little room for argument. Sinema helped to tank changes to Senate rules that would have allowed for a simple-majority to advance certain measures that her party considered priorities. In turn, preserving the Senate tradition of lawmakers killing legislation by simply threatening to filibuster it derailed a voting rights proposal. She also wasn’t on board for President Joe Biden’s infrastructure packages or an effort by the progressive wing of her party to boost the minimum wage to $15 an hour.
In turn, she got a hero’s welcome from a host who similarly enjoys thwarting Democrats’ best-laid plans, including a Supreme Court nominee in 2016.
Typically, Democrats make the trip to McConnell’s turf when they’re on the mend or readying their next acts; then-Vice President Biden made the hike in 2011, while Sen. Amy Klobuchar paid a visit earlier this year to discuss the virtues of bipartisanship. But now, just weeks before the midterms, Sinema was on campus to serve up an event that suggested her fellow Democrats were on the verge of losing power in Washington, while lapping up praise from McConnell, who would use control over the chamber to stymie the balance of Biden’s first term.
“As you all know, control changes between the House and the Senate every couple of years. It’s likely to change again in just a few weeks” Sinema said.
Such a statement is as plausible as it is unhelpful—and predictable, given the Senator’s recent track record.
Sinema is a Democrat, but a wholly unreliable one. She and Sen. Joe Manchin trade the crown for being the most vexing member of the Democratic Party in the Senate, often willing to buck colleagues. But Manchin has a rational argument for being contrarian; he represents West Virginia, the second-most Trumpian state in the country and is possibly the last Democrat to stand a chance to win statewide. Sinema, meanwhile, hails from Arizona, a state that Biden won and is trending bluer by the week; she has less reason to fear her constituents than Manchin.
Sinema’s comments come as Democrats are fighting with every ounce to defend narrow majorities in the House and the Senate. Her fellow Arizona Democrat, Sen. Mark Kelly, is in a tight fight to stay in Washington. Dozens of House Democrats are struggling to shake the conventional wisdom that they’re cruising toward a thumping. Donors are still pumping cash into races, Biden’s poll numbers seem to be rebounding slightly, and Republicans aren’t coasting toward gavel-wielding majorities just yet.
But instead of campaigning for Democrats, Sinema is palling around with McConnell, who stands to halt Democrats’ agenda for at least the next two years. On top of all of that, Sinema is renewing her calls for a stronger filibuster.
Sinema suggested in Louisville that 60 votes should be required for approving anything, including judges and executive branch nominees. The optimism needed to believe the federal government could continue to function under such a system requires lawmakers to believe all of their current and future colleagues—of both parties, to be fair—will respect those they disagree with, and won’t resort to procedural tricks to delay and defer every chance they get.
At this point, no presidential administration expects to get all of their team past the Senate. Picking one or two sacrificial nominees is now an official Senate sport, in which otherwise qualified individuals are held in limbo as petty payback. It’s why Neera Tanden is now managing the flow of paper across Biden’s desk rather than running the Office of Management and Budget—because of mean tweets.
Sinema is often interpreted as an heir to the late Sen. John McCain’s maverick spirit. But McCain had principles and priorities. Perhaps the most accurate diagnosis of Sinema’s agenda came from the unlikely quarter of SNL: her goal is little more than chaos. And, for a few hours this week, that meant giving her political opposite McConnell a speech that he could circulate with glee. After all, here was one of the most (perceived to be) honest Democrats suggesting a GOP takeover was in the offing. And while Sinema joked that even their bar orders were at odds—“He drinks bourbon. I drink wine” she told the crowd amiably—their goals were not. But perhaps only one of them fully understood there was but one winner when they both bellied up to the bar.
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