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Kyrsten Sinema preempts Biden, dashing Democrats’ illogical hopes she would move on the filibuster

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) on Jan. 13 said that she would not support changing filibuster rules to pass voting rights legislation. (Video: The Washington Post)
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The timing of Sen. Kyrsten Sinema’s Thursday speech was what really distinguished it from her previous calls for bipartisan action rather than unilateral rule changes.

“We have but one democracy,” she said. “We can only survive, we can only keep her, if we do so together.”

Sinema (D-Ariz.) has repeatedly taken stands in defense of the 60-vote supermajority for most legislation to pass the Senate. But she delivered this floor speech less than 45 minutes before President Biden arrived at the Democratic luncheon where he planned to ask all 50 members of the caucus to support changing Senate rules just for a carve-out to allow voting rights legislation to pass.

By speaking out before Biden arrived, Sinema ended what little suspense there was in the long-shot effort to get her and Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) to flip their support of filibuster rules. This rendered Biden’s hour-long meeting with Democrats a theoretical discussion about Senate history and his own vision of the chamber he served in for decades.

Multiple sources informed The Washington Post’s Seung Min Kim that Sinema gave White House officials an advance warning of what she would say in her speech, but she left her colleagues frustrated, again, with her rationale for defending a Senate that they consider broken to act as conservative legislatures manipulate voting rules across the nation.

Manchin also reiterated his support for maintaining the filibuster on Thursday, but he waited until after the lunch to do so in a statement. Manchin and Sinema both met with Biden late Thursday at the White House for more than an hour.

“She believes that the risk of changing the filibuster is greater than the risk of what’s going on in the states. I hope profoundly that she’s right. I fear that she’s wrong,” Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), who spent hours negotiating with her on the Senate rules, said after Thursday’s Biden huddle.

“It’s impossible to argue that this place functions better today than when Joe Biden was here,” said Sen. Michael F. Bennet (D-Colo.). Without singling Sinema out, Bennet said today’s Senate was not “worthy of defense.”

Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D-Ga.), who serves as pastor at the former church of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Atlanta, likened this era’s defense of the filibuster to efforts to block laws to end the Jim Crow era in the South.

“I don’t think it was just because there were people who hated Black people,” he said. “I think that often, in institutions like this, arguments about process and procedure somehow get in the way of seeing people’s humanity.”

Sinema, 45, entering her fourth year in the Senate, uses her words carefully and manages to keep a low profile, given her role as a key swing vote in the 50-50 Senate. Liberals have grown furious that the onetime Green Party activist, who is the first openly bisexual member of the Senate, has turned into a centrist often at odds with party leadership.

But she views her lead role in the more than $1 trillion infrastructure bill, garnering 19 votes, including that of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), as the prototype for Senate legislation. She has many admirers on the GOP side, with 10 Republicans on hand for her remarks.

“It was extraordinarily important and she has, with a conspicuous act of political courage, saved the Senate as an institution,” McConnell told reporters after her speech.

Often linked to Manchin, and sometimes compared to the late John McCain (R-Ariz.), she is actually the anti-Manchin and anti-McCain.

The senator from West Virginia thrives on media attention. He always engages the congressional press corps, multiple times a day when the Senate is in session. He is out and about at Washington events, particularly any focused on promoting centrist, bipartisan action. He likes to joust with Sunday show hosts.

McCain still holds the record for the most ever “Meet the Press” appearances and used the Senate hallways — or his campaign bus during his presidential bids — as a one-man message operation, to push his maverick views into the hourly news cycle.

Sinema takes an entirely different approach — she rarely speaks, but when she does, it’s with a bang.

Her Thursday address, torpedoing one of Biden’s top priorities, was her first extensive Senate speech since early August, according to C-SPAN’s Senate video archives. A month ago, as several moderate Democrats worked with Manchin to try to win his support for a filibuster carve-out, Sinema issued a nighttime statement that rendered those talks moot, reiterating her opposition to any changes to filibuster rules and leaving Democrats short of the 50 votes they need to change the rules.

In mid-October, after weeks of rumors from the White House to K Street, her office issued a long statement publicly explaining that she opposed raising taxes on corporations and most of the wealthy, completely undercutting what had been the anchor of the roughly $2 trillion spending plan that is now stalled in the Senate.

Thursday’s failure highlighted the sense in some circles that Democratic leaders and White House officials have chosen hope as their primary strategy for success rather than any strategic vision — relying on wishful thinking that Sinema and Manchin will simply switch their long-held positions if they just ask enough times.

But the senators have never signaled publicly any real hints of changing their position. They support the two election bills that Democrats have passed multiple times in the House, designed to guarantee access to the polls and to curb partisan practices like gerrymandering, but only if Democrats round up at least 10 Republicans to clear the 60-vote hurdle to end a filibuster and move to a final vote.

Other Democrats pushed to end the filibuster requirement on most legislation — executive and judicial branch nominees no longer need to meet this threshold — while others pushed to just do a carve-out so that election rules could pass with a simple majority.

“The Senate rules are not sacrosanct. The Constitution is, the preservation of democracy is, but the Senate rules have changed,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said, summing up Biden’s pitch Thursday to Democrats.

Kaine played a lead role among moderate Democrats trying to swing Manchin and Sinema to support blowing up the filibuster for voting legislation, growing frustrated by their assertions that Democrats just needed to keep reaching out to Republicans.

“We got delivered a message about the facts of life,” Kaine told reporters Thursday, explaining the message Republicans told him months ago about how McConnell has only two major issues he cares about. “He has two red lines: voting rights and campaign finance. And he’s told us absolutely, plainly, you cannot work with Democrats on either of those issues.”

But they kept trying and trying, believing they could get the holdouts to change their views, something that started to defy basic logic in the past few days, given Sinema and Manchin’s stated views.

Kaine and King were part of an ideologically diverse group of Democrats who met with Sinema on Tuesday to try to persuade her to support a filibuster carve-out for the voting bill. Manchin shuttled in and out of meetings with Schumer and other senators.

Sinema barely said a word about her intentions. Manchin kept talking almost every step of the way.

Finally, a little past noon Thursday, Sinema spoke up, again, ending any chance of altering the filibuster for now. She believes she is standing in a breach trying to prevent an even more partisan polarization by adhering to this tradition.

“I am committed to doing my part to avoid toxic political rhetoric, to build bridges, to forge common ground, and to achieve lasting results for Arizona and this country,” she said.