By Yvonne Wingett Sanchez
Sen. Kyrsten Sinema maintained Thursday the ambitious $1.2 trillion infrastructure deal she helped broker still has legs even as senators in both parties have concerns over its price tag and how the government would pay for it.
The deal is reaching a critical point on Capitol Hill, with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., saying he will force a vote next week to try to push the bipartisan package forward before the August congressional recess.
“This effort is an example — and I hope it demonstrates — that Republicans and Democrats actually can work together to help solve problems,” Sinema, D-Ariz., said. “This group has been working together for a very long time. We have built deep trust with each other. We are equally committed to getting this done.”
Sinema’s comments to The Arizona Republic’s Editorial Board came as legislative staffers are furiously writing legislative text to prepare for any potential vote and as a group of 10 bipartisan senators huddled again with White House staff to address those concerns.
Twenty-two senators — enough to clear the filibuster’s 60-vote threshold — have signed onto the framework, which would include rebuilding roads, bridges, airports, expanding broadband internet access, and strengthening the nation’s water systems.
The infrastructure framework is running parallel to a separate Democratic-led $3.5 trillion budget plan that includes items President Joe Biden considers “human infrastructure.” Those include expanding Medicare and caregiving for the disabled and elderly, funding universal prekindergarten, and paying for climate change initiatives.
Sinema signaled she is keeping her options open on that front. She has not yet reviewed the substance of the human infrastructure framework, released Wednesday, she said.
“I’ll pledge, as always, to give careful consideration to any idea that will strengthen Arizona’s economy and help our families get ahead,” Sinema said.
It’s unclear if Sinema and co-broker Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, will meet Schumer’s deadline to move on the infrastructure package. An aide to Sinema said she and her colleagues share a sense of urgency but that the senators also want to see a successful package.
Larry Sabato, a political scientist who directs the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, said the moment is make-or-break for Sinema, a centrist Democrat and swing vote in the 50-50 Senate.
Sinema spent her first two years in the chamber befriending both Republicans and Democrats, a strategy that helped her emerge as a deal-maker and lead negotiator.
Although she has had a lower profile than Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., she has still become known as a Democratic dissenter at a time when Democrats had high hopes of quickly advancing their agenda based on their narrow majorities in the Senate and House of Representatives.
“She needs this, I think, to show that her bipartisan tendencies are, in fact, helping the party accomplish something,” Sabato said. “Now, if it falls apart, that takes her talking point away.”
Sinema told The Republic she will not make any exceptions to the Senate’s legislative filibuster rule to try to pass voting rights legislation, reiterating her position on the 60-vote rule.
Some Democrats have raised the prospect of trying to convince colleagues to carve out an exception to the filibuster to voting rights legislation after Republicans last month filibustered S.1, the sweeping measure that would, in part, overhaul voting rights and the nation’s campaign-finance laws. Sinema co-sponsored the bill.
“Is it good for our country to eliminate a protection for the minority in the Senate process to only see that legislation rescinded or completely overturned several years from now and replaced with other onerous laws that further restrict the right for Americans to vote?” she asked. “Because when you eliminate a tool such as the 60-vote threshold in the United States Senate, that is a natural consequence. This ricocheting, this rapid ricochet of the extreme back and forth, which is destabilizing for our country and would be destabilizing for our electoral system.”
Sinema said she was disappointed by the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ruling that upheld two controversial Arizona election laws that challengers have said would make it more difficult for minorities to vote.
Sinema said the rulings were “disappointing because it’s damaging Arizona’s ability to make their voices heard at the ballot box.”
One law allows only caregivers and close family members to turn in ballots for others. Critics, especially in Indian Country and other rural areas, have said the law doesn’t reflect the logistical hurdles of voting for those in remote areas or with physical limitations.
The other law disqualifies ballots submitted to the wrong precincts. Opponents of the law have said counties now operate large voting centers that allow ballots to be processed away from precincts, which can change from election to election.
The court’s decision on those laws came as some GOP-controlled states, including Arizona, have changed their voting laws in ways expected to make voting more restrictive.
Against this backdrop, Sinema said Arizonans should consider what types of changes should be made either at the ballot box or legislatively to make sure they have equal access to vote.