The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Sinema’s silence on spending bill vexes many Democrats while she digs in on talks out of public view

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), departs after a meeting with Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and White House officials on Capitol Hill on Thursday. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Senate Democrats left their weekly lunch on Tuesday proclaiming that every person in the room — from Vermont’s Bernie Sanders to West Virginia’s Joe Manchin III — was unified on the urgency of getting a deal on President Biden’s ambitious domestic policy package.

Conspicuously absent was Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, the inscrutable Arizonan whose refusal to discuss publicly her views on Biden’s biggest domestic priority has angered many Democrats.

While her colleagues dined, Sinema was elsewhere in the Capitol, huddling with White House officials continuing to negotiate on the tax code, climate initiatives and the social safety net, according to two aides. She had met with Biden earlier that day at the White House, and, unbeknown to many House and Senate Democrats, had been engaging in talks with a small handful of colleagues.

Sinema, who along with fellow holdout Manchin has the power to single-handedly sink Biden’s plans in the 50-50 Senate, has been mocked on the left, which has accused her of avoiding the gritty details of legislating in favor of frivolities such as fundraising in Europe and training for races. She has been trailed by angry protesters, some of whom at one point followed her into a public restroom and tried to confront her at the Boston marathon this month.

But Sinema’s whereabouts on the day of the Senate lunch were emblematic of her actual approach, according to people directly familiar with it: Eschew all but a select few congressional colleagues, focus on negotiating directly with the president and his senior aides, burrow in on policy details — and ignore the frustration of those not privy to her thinking.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard E. Neal (D-Mass.), who held a 30-minute private meeting with Sinema this past week, said the senator effectively ranked her three priorities: a tax credit for renewable energy programs, a child tax credit, and paid leave programs. In their meeting, Neal, the House’s chief tax-writer, said Sinema was adamant about getting something done.

“You and I both know this has got to pass,” Neal said as he recounted his conversation with the senator. “She said, ‘I couldn’t agree more.’ ”

Sinema’s approach has earned her a reputation within the White House as a deliberative negotiator who administration officials feel has always worked in good faith.

“Sen. Sinema is and always has been clear with us,” one White House official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the talks candidly. The official added that those who say otherwise “are telling on themselves. They’re saying they aren’t close enough to the process to know what they’re talking about.”

Meanwhile, others not directly involved in the talks, including some in the administration, have grown frustrated, questioning her motives and viewing her as far more opaque and mercurial than Manchin, the other Democrat who has withheld support for the bill.

Sinema is drawing increasing ire from Democrats who say she is the lone holdout on provisions that are popular among Democratic lawmakers and with the public. Though she is not up for reelection until 2024, she is already facing threats of a primary challenge from her left. And a handful of members who served on an informal advisory council for her Senate office quit in recent days, although one has since walked back some of his criticisms.

The big source of dissension between Sinema and virtually every other Democrat on Capitol Hill is her opposition to raising the current 21 percent corporate tax rate and the individual rate for the highest earners — figures set into law in 2017 under President Donald Trump and the GOP-led Congress.

“The hypocrisy of voting against Trump’s tax cuts and then not being willing to restore rates in any way to what they were before the cuts is stunning,” said Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), one of the most vocal intraparty critics of Sinema in Congress. “It makes you wonder, what are the special interests that are driving that decision? It’s obviously not conviction, because she voted against the tax cuts in the first place.”

Biden himself, in one of several moments of unusual candor during a CNN town hall on Thursday, said Sinema’s opposition to raising a “single penny” through increasing the corporate or individual rates was “where it sort of breaks down.” Sinema’s case to both other lawmakers and Biden is that simply raising the rates will not address the question of tax avoidance nor improve competitiveness, a spokesman said, and her office says both Biden and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) have been aware of her views on taxes since early August.

Elected to the Senate in 2018, Sinema has emerged during the Biden presidency and the current 50-50 Senate as a significant hurdle to the party’s most progressive policy ambitions.

She and Manchin have steadfastly remained opposed to effectively eliminating the legislative filibuster, which stops most legislation from advancing unless it has 60 votes in the Senate. She, like Manchin, has received outsize attention from the Biden White House, and both were core negotiators in a bipartisan infrastructure deal that earned 69 votes in the Senate earlier this year. And both Democrats are genuinely friendly with GOP senators, a dynamic becoming less common in the clubby Senate.

But the talks over Biden’s domestic spending package, whose price tag once stood at $3.5 trillion but has shrunk considerably due to opposition from Sinema and Manchin, have shown the differences between the two — including in how they operate.

Sinema has been militantly tight-lipped about her positions and details of ongoing negotiations, while Manchin has spoken frequently to the news media about his policy stances and what he is willing to embrace. While Sinema embraces the party’s platform on climate, she — to most Democrats — remains stubbornly conservative on corporate and individual tax rates, while Manchin has effectively been the reverse.

Manchin, Democrats say, also deserves some leeway as a member of the party who is able to win in a deeply red state that voted for Trump by 40 points. Sinema, they believe, has no excuse, being from an increasingly swing state that Biden won in 2020.

“Sinema’s positions seem to be a game of contrarian lawn darts. It’s like she’s just sort of tossing things around and seeing where they land,” said Adam Jentleson, a former top aide to ex-Senate Democratic Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.). “It’s like whack-a-mole, because satisfying Manchin can put you in an even worse position with Sinema and there’s an unpredictability about her that makes it hard to know that you’re ever going to get to yes with her.”

Despite the escalating criticism from her own party, Sinema has appeared unfazed by it and has rarely engaged with dissenters. Though many lawmakers and administration officials insist they won’t negotiate through the media, Sinema is one of the few who actually abide by that — not wanting to disrupt sensitive negotiations with other senators or the White House.

It was eventually the White House that made it clear to the Senate Finance Committee — which has chief jurisdiction over tax policy — that Sinema would not support any increase to the corporate or individual rates, according to an official directly familiar with the discussions.

Her main conduits in the White House, aside from Biden himself, have been senior aides such as Louisa Terrell, White House director of legislative affairs; Brian Deese, director of the National Economic Council; presidential counselor Steve Ricchetti; and, more recently, Susan Rice, director of the Domestic Policy Council.

Sinema has talked quietly with Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and House moderates on a compromise for prescription drug pricing and with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) on taxes targeting corporations. She and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), chairwoman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, have discussed issues under Murray’s purview such as paid leave and community college, according to officials familiar with the talks. She is in touch with Schumer or his aides nearly every day.

Sinema’s elusive persona made it all the more remarkable on Thursday when Biden went into significant detail about his talks with Sinema — as well as Manchin — at the town hall in Baltimore.

Breaking with the White House’s posture to let the senators speak for themselves, Biden disclosed that Sinema was refusing to raise rates for corporations or for individual high earners. He said “I think” that Sinema is opposed to the expansion of Medicare in the way Sanders has envisioned — including new hearing, dental and vision coverage — although Sinema has indicated to the president that she would actually support hearing benefits, Biden disclosed.

Now, the White House and key negotiators have been left scrambling to piece together sources of revenue to fund a package totaling upward of $2 trillion that would not only placate Sinema but also get the other 49 Democratic senators and nearly every House Democrat on board.

Despite her opposition to raising the corporate rate — which Democrats say would be a simpler, cleaner way to strike at big businesses — Sinema has signed off on other sources of revenue that Democrats hope to characterize as fundamental “tax fairness” provisions.

To that end, Sinema has been speaking with Warren in recent days about a proposal that would impose a minimum corporate tax of 15 percent, as well as a “mark-to-market” plan that would raise hundreds of billions of dollars by targeting America’s roughly 700 billionaires, according to an official with direct knowledge of the talks.

“While Senators Sinema and Warren have at times approached tax policy from different perspectives, they have in the course of these negotiations found common ground around policies to address tax avoidance and make our tax code more effective and efficient,” said John LaBombard, a spokesman for Sinema. An aide for Warren added that the conversations have been “productive.”

But Sinema’s opaqueness and her tendency to buck party orthodoxy have drawn fire at home in Arizona, as a new political action committee launched in recent weeks prepares to fund a credible primary challenge to her in three years.

“Organizations across the state of Arizona that were really pivotal in organizing to defeat Trump this last cycle and to send Sinema in a very narrow victory to the Senate feel very, very betrayed by a lot of her recent actions,” said Kolby Lee, a spokesperson for the Primary Sinema Project. “Voters across the country voted for Biden because of his agenda, and she is a pivotal player standing in the way of that.”

Biden gives Sinema more standing.

“Look, when you’re in the United States Senate and you’re president of the United States and you have 50 Democrats, every one is a president,” he said Thursday. ­“Every single one. So you got to work things out.”

Correction: A previous version of this article misidentified the organization Kolby Lee works for. She is a spokesperson for the Primary Sinema Project. The version has been corrected.