The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Kyrsten Sinema’s latest moves pose a dire threat to Biden’s agenda

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

Call it Beltway brain lock at its worst. Again and again, we keep hearing the same storyline: In the battle over President Biden’s agenda, progressives are demanding all or nothing.

According to this tale, House Democrats threatening to vote down the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill are holding it “hostage” as leverage to get everything they want from the much bigger social policy bill. Why won’t progressives take 70 percent?

This story line is nonsense. And it has apparently fallen to none other than Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), a determined holdout against the multitrillion-dollar social policy bill, to expose it as the sham it truly is.

Democratic leaders are negotiating with Sinema to win her support for a broad framework on the bigger bill, which would pass by the simple-majority reconciliation process. If she and Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) publicly commit to an ambitious reconciliation measure, House progressives might help pass the smaller bill when it gets a vote on Thursday.

Progressives are temporarily withholding support because they fear that if infrastructure passes now, Sinema, Manchin and some House centrists might never support a good reconciliation bill, blowing up the centerpiece of the Democratic Party’s agenda for securing our future.

Follow Greg Sargent's opinionsFollow

Now Politico reports that Sinema is refusing to say what she can commit to on reconciliation, and worse, that she may not do so until the infrastructure bill is passed:

During a private meeting with the president, Sinema made clear she’s still not on board with the party’s $3.5 trillion social spending plan and is hesitant to engage on some specifics until the bipartisan infrastructure package passes the House, according to a person who spoke with her.
“This is the third time she said she has told the president, ‘I’m not there,’” the person said, quoting Sinema as telling the president: “‘I’ve been very clear with you from the start.’”

Sinema opposes the bill’s overall spending level but won’t say what she would support. She also appears to oppose various provisions taxing the rich and corporations, though reporting has been murky on this. (Her office is not commenting directly on the report.)

But the key point here is her apparent refusal to say what she’s for in the reconciliation bill.

First off, this confirms that progressives are right to worry that if Democrats pass the infrastructure bill first, there’s no telling whether Sinema (or Manchin and other centrists) will be there to support something substantial in reconciliation. Sinema not only won’t say what she wants; she apparently doesn’t want to have to specify it at all until the smaller bill passes.

Second, note that when progressives ask Sinema to say what she wants, they are in effect asking what she wants in concessions from them. Yet Sinema won’t specify this. It’s almost an insistence that the infrastructure bill must pass entirely on her terms. That seems almost designed to prevent any kind of accommodation, a level of bad faith that’s genuinely hard to fathom.

Importantly, all this also demonstrates that progressives are not insisting on an all or nothing approach. They are asking Sinema to tell them what she wants them to sacrifice to get her to support a reconciliation bill. And she won’t.

What progressives are really demanding

It’s true that progressives are drawing a hard line, but it’s on process. They are insisting Democrats must stick to the original two-track plan — in which both bills get passed together, so each side exercises leverage on the other — rather than letting the infrastructure bill pass right now.

But let’s set the record straight here. It’s sometimes suggested this means progressives are refusing to make concessions. That’s nonsense. They already came way down from their original hopes for the reconciliation bill. And even if this two-track is adhered to, progressives will still have to accept concessions to get centrists to agree to support the reconciliation bill.

Some have argued that the progressive strategy is misguided, that centrists like Sinema don’t actually feel pressure to make concessions on reconciliation when progressives threaten to oppose the infrastructure bill.

That’s clearly dubious — this is obviously ratcheting up pressure on Sinema, who is again meeting with the White House Wednesday, plainly fearing being blamed for tanking Biden’s agenda. But regardless, even if you think the progressive approach won’t work, it’s just empirically, verifiably the case that the progressive position isn’t “all or nothing.”

Bipartisan theater

Which brings us to the final point: The demand for an immediate infrastructure vote, before a broader deal on reconciliation is reached, does not have to be happening at all.

The reconciliation bill comprises the heart of the Biden and Democratic Party agenda. The infrastructure bill has plenty of good things in it — including when it comes to combating climate change.

But the reconciliation measure is the one with the truly transformative policies when it comes to securing a decarbonized future and comprehensively rebalancing our political economy after it has been skewed to channel wealth, income and rents to the top for decades.

In that context, the infrastructure bill is essentially bipartisan theater, the opening act for the main event. By arbitrarily insisting that this must pass before any agreement is made on the heart of the Biden and Democratic Party agenda, Sinema reveals herself as a leading threat to it.