When it was announced that Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) would be giving a speech in Kentucky at an institution created by Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell, the move seemed perfectly calibrated to troll her fellow Democrats.
By the time the Arizona senator stepped off the stage at the McConnell Center on Monday—and thanked an applauding audience that included McConnell himself—she could safely say: mission accomplished.
In her remarks, Sinema doubled down on the most high-profile areas where she has broken with fellow Democrats, defended her style of bipartisan dealmaking, attacked what she framed as partisanship and extremism in both parties, and warmly described her personal relationship with her host that day—the man who has been her party’s most hated enemy for decades.
It was precisely the kind of stuff that has made Sinema persona non grata among Democrats from Arizona to Washington as she emerged as a decisive roadblock to much of the party’s agenda under President Joe Biden and majorities in the House and Senate.
Indeed, during her speech, Sinema’s many critics lit into her on social media—including Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-AZ), the Phoenix progressive who is openly considering a primary challenge to her in 2024.
But in her speech, Sinema cast that backlash as proof of the righteousness of her approach to politics. "If you don't fit in today’s Washington, trust me, they want to kick you out," Sinema said. "But I've never really wanted to fit in, in Washington or anywhere else."
The tone for the spectacle was set by McConnell, who introduced Sinema. The longtime GOP leader, not especially known for his warmth or loquaciousness in public, was effusive about the Arizona Democrat, calling her “the most effective first-term senator I've seen in my time in the Senate.”
McConnell went on to praise Sinema as a “genuine moderate and dealmaker” in a Democratic Party that he said has “too few of them” and all but credited her for saving the Senate because she opposed the Democratic caucus’ push to eliminate the chamber’s 60-vote threshold for passing bills.
“As you can tell,” McConnell said, “I have a very high opinion of the senator from Arizona.”
At the beginning of her remarks, Sinema returned the favor. “Despite our apparent differences, Sen. McConnell and I have forged a friendship,” she said, rooted in commonalities she listed like a “pragmatic approach to legislating” and “respect for the Senate.”
McConnell, of course, is hardly known as a champion of bipartisan compromise and comity. One of the most hard-edged partisan warriors of the modern era, the GOP leader is blamed by Democrats for inventing the ruthless political warfare Sinema decried in her speech.
Much of Sinema’s remarks were devoted to extolling the virtues of two major bipartisan bills she was closely involved in shaping this year: the $1 trillion infrastructure law and the gun safety compromise.
Criticizing the “all or nothing purity tests” that she argued define contemporary politics, Sinema focused on the group of senators who shaped the infrastructure bill. “The 10 of us shut out noise from the extremes, refused to demonize each other,” she said, “and focused on identifying creative solutions and commonsense compromise.”
While Democrats prize those achievements, to many, the opposition of Sinema—and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV)—to changing the filibuster remains one of the sorest spots of an otherwise productive session in Congress. The Arizona senator also left her mark on the sweeping climate change, tax, and health care legislation Democrats passed in August along partisan lines, and her resistance to tax reforms—frequently along the preferred lines of deep-pocketed finance interests—still rankles many.
On Monday, Sinema unsurprisingly reiterated her opposition to eliminating the 60-vote rule, and went further. She expressed a belief—which she previously did in 2019—that the Senate should restore the 60-vote threshold to everything, judicial nominations and administration appointments included.
The senator acknowledged that such a move would make filling key posts more difficult but would help ensure more nominees are broadly supported by both parties. The irony of Sinema defending this idea at a center named for McConnell was lost on few Democrats. As Minority Leader in the Obama era, McConnell blocked so many of Obama’s judicial nominees that the Majority Leader at the time, Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV), was prompted to make the controversial move of ending the filibuster for judicial nominees.
To underscore her broader point on the filibuster, Sinema noted that control of Congress switches “every couple of years” and “it’s likely to change again in just a few weeks”—a rare explicit acknowledgement by a Democrat that the party may lose either the House, Senate or both. This remark set off Gallego, who tweeted that Sinema “would actually prefer the Dems lose control of the Senate and House.”
Notably, Sinema expressed no preference either way as to who might control Congress next year. “I’ll work with Leader McConnell, Leader Schumer, Republicans, Democrats,” Sinema said. “Anyone who’s willing to roll up their sleeves.”