The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Kyrsten Sinema needs to show us what she believes in

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) with Republican senators. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

The next week could be the most important of Joe Biden’s presidency, as the fates of the infrastructure and reconciliation bills are likely to be determined. If it passes Congress, the latter will almost certainly be the most significant piece of legislation Biden signs; it could even be the last significant piece of legislation he signs.

So in this moment, everyone is being called upon to decide what matters to them. What do they hope to accomplish? What do they do when faced with competing impulses? What goals are they willing to sacrifice? And why did they get involved in politics in the first place?

Let’s consider those questions through the case of Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), perhaps the most enigmatic of the players in this drama.

Like her colleague Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), Sinema is a committed supporter of the filibuster and a performative centrist, who clearly believes that it’s to her political advantage in a closely divided state to be seen as independent. Which is fine; every officeholder weighs their political incentives as they approach important decisions.

But in this case, Sinema is putting her foot down on one of the most popular elements of the reconciliation bill: the provision allowing Medicare to negotiate prices for prescription drugs, which would save the government hundreds of billions of dollars. She has reportedly told the White House that she will not stand for it to be included in the bill and even opposes a far more modest proposal to allow for negotiation over a small number of medications.

Follow Paul Waldman's opinionsFollow

There is absolutely no political advantage in taking this position. Allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices is absurdly popular, with some polls showing over 8 in 10 Americans supporting it. Given Arizona’s large population of senior citizens — who know more about high prescription drug prices than anyone — supporting price negotiation would be a clear political winner for Sinema.

It’s important to understand how central the Medicare provision is to the entire bill. Because Democrats are determined to pay for every last penny of new spending in this legislation, and because negotiating drug prices would save the government hundreds of billions of dollars, eliminating the provision would mean cutting all kinds of other priorities from the bill.

What would they be? Pre-K? Community college? Home care for seniors and the disabled? Paid family leave? An extension of the enhanced child tax credit? It’s up in the air right now, but if your position is that the status quo — a legal ban on Medicare negotiating prices — must remain in place, it means that’s more important to you than the other things the bill seeks to accomplish.

Perhaps Sinema could offer a persuasive explanation for that position. She could, for instance, offer a list of all the things the bill in its current form does that she thinks are not worthwhile, or at least less important than drug company profits. But she hasn’t done that.

This is a broader problem with Sinema: When she is called upon to detail why she is taking a controversial position — for instance, her fervent devotion to the filibuster — she tends to offer explanations that are so weak and blind to reality that one suspects she’s either hiding her real motivations or just doesn’t care.

We’re told Sinema is a wonky legislator immersed in the substance of the bill (she apparently knows how to use Excel!), but we don’t know what she actually cares about. What does she want to accomplish? Which of these social insurance measures does she think are vital and which aren’t worth doing?

Sinema reportedly threatened Biden by saying that if the infrastructure bill doesn’t pass the House before the reconciliation bill, she’ll single-handedly kill the latter. But we shouldn’t let (probably empty) threats such as that one distract us from focusing on the substance of what’s at stake.

Because that’s what this is about. It’s fine for Sinema, Manchin or anyone else to look at the reconciliation bill and say, “I’m in favor of items A, B, and C, but not D or E.” People bring different perspectives and priorities to these debates. Then they can try to get the bill to reflect their preferences.

But sooner or later, they have to make clear what matters to them. If making sure drug companies continue to make trillions of dollars in profits is important to Sinema (and apparently it is; she’s one of the drug industry’s most stalwart allies in Congress), then she’ll have to show us what is less important to her.

And no one should be able to hide behind abstract numbers, saying that $3.5 trillion or $2 trillion or some other number is just too big. Over the same 10-year period the reconciliation bill covers, we’ll likely spend around $8 trillion on the military. Sinema and Manchin are in favor of that spending, regardless of the fact that it’s a big number, because they think all those planes and guns and bombs are worth spending that money on.

So when they say the reconciliation bill costs too much, they’re saying they don’t think these things are worth spending money on. They have every right to take that position. But they need to own it and tell everyone why.