Minutes before President Joe Biden was set to travel to Capitol Hill to persuade Democrats to scrap current Senate rules for the sake of protecting voting rights, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) took to the Senate floor to give her president, her colleagues, and her country a simple answer: Nope.
That Sinema opposes changing the chamber’s 60-vote threshold to pass legislation is not news. She has said so ever since Democrats took control of Congress last January.
But the way Sinema timed her speech—and her decision to give one at all—amounted to a gut punch to Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), and hundreds of Democratic lawmakers who have ratcheted up the push to pass election reforms since the start of the new year.
The White House declined to comment on Sinema’s speech, but within the West Wing, the mood was incandescent with rage. One person familiar with the internal response to the Arizona senator’s remarks replied only with a red-faced swearing emoji.
On Tuesday, Biden and Harris traveled to Georgia for a major joint address to make the case to pass voting bills by changing Senate rules. Schumer had already teed up a process that could set up such a debate within weeks. And many Democrats believe their time is running out to enact reforms before it’s too late, with dozens of Republican-held states enacting new restrictive voting laws ahead of the 2022 elections.
Few Democrats felt it was likely, or even plausible, that filibuster holdouts like Sinema and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) would be moved at this stage. But even fewer expected Sinema to deliver the coup de grace on the Senate floor just moments before Biden could come to Capitol Hill and make his plea. Sinema rejected Biden’s latest offer even before he could make it.
Sens. Dick Durbin (IL) and Jeff Merkley (OR) were the only Democrats to join Sinema on the floor during her speech. While Durbin watched closely, Merkley kept his head down for most of the time, jotting notes into a binder.
As they watched from afar, Democratic lawmakers and aides privately stewed at Sinema’s speech. And her colleagues began to call her out: Rep. Jared Huffman (D-CA) tweeted shortly afterward, “shame on you.”
On the House floor, where Democrats on Thursday morning passed another round of voting rights legislation, Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-AZ) took the rare step of calling out his Arizona colleague by name.
“Today, the House showed where it stands,” Gallego said. “We won’t shrink from protecting our democracy… It’s past time for the U.S. Senate, and Senator Sinema, to do the same.”
Gallego is frequently mentioned as a potential primary challenger to Sinema in 2024, and his candidacy seems more likely by the day.
Either way, Sinema made it clear on Thursday that she supports Democrats’ election reforms—just not changing Senate rules to enact them. The conservative Democrat argued that doing so would inflict the exact kind of damage on American democracy that Democrats are seeking to repair.
“While I will continue to support these bills,” she said, “I will not support separate actions that worsen the underlying disease of division infecting our country.”
The speech was a distillation of Sinema’s self-styled independent brand of politics: conspicuously even-handed in its civics-class praise of bipartisan ideals and subtly critical of colleagues on both sides—but particularly Democrats—in their shortcomings to reach those ideals.
Sinema condemned Democratic leaders for, in her eyes, not doing enough to earn GOP support for their legislation. And she also chided Democrats for the timing and nature of their Senate rules-change debate, calling it a “poor substitute for what I believe could have and should have been a thoughtful public debate at any time over the last year.”
(Democrats have repeatedly tried to pass voting reforms since taking power last January, and Schumer blessed a months-long, Manchin-led effort to solicit Republican votes.)
Sinema did briefly go after Republicans for their unanimous opposition to proposed election reforms, saying she shared the “disappointment” of her colleagues that GOP lawmakers had not met their “shared responsibility” to protect democratic institutions.
But a number of Sinema’s GOP colleagues—who sat on the floor in person to watch her speech—were happy to overlook that gentle criticism and celebrate Sinema’s public rebuke of her Democratic colleagues.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell intently watched Sinema’s speech from across the chamber, folding his hands across his lap and locking his gaze on the Arizona Democrat. Sen. John Thune (R-SD) rocked his leg back and forth, often resting his hand on his chin while listening to Sinema’s soliloquy.
At the end, Sinema’s GOP colleagues gave her no applause and quickly pivoted back to debate over Russian pipeline talks. But afterward, McConnell declared to reporters that Sinema did nothing less than “saved the Senate as an institution” and dubbed her speech a “conspicuous act of political courage.”
Additional reporting by Scott Bixby