Ronald J. Hansen
More than coronavirus, more than the parallel recession, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema sees cooperative, functional government as the biggest task for Congress in the new year.
Sinema, D-Ariz., spoke at length to The Arizona Republic on Thursday about what could be in the virus relief bill emerging from negotiations on Capitol Hill, and her continued wish that Gov. Doug Ducey would help enforce greater compliance with the science-based restrictions during the pandemic.
But, when asked about the biggest challenge facing lawmakers in 2021, Sinema said it was the need to return to a more civil politics.
“I think the largest issue … is less of an actual issue and more of a process question: Will the Congress begin to work again?” she said ahead of the change in administrations from President Donald Trump to President-elect Joe Biden.
The Democratic majority in the House of Representatives will shrink in January and Republicans could still lose their majority in the Senate after the runoff elections in Georgia next month.
“We have, unfortunately, been sidelined by intense partisanship — and I do not blame just one party for this — and a rigidity and a resistance to finding compromise and common ground. I believe there are members of both political parties to blame for this.”
Trump will leave office as only the third president to be impeached and with a pair of protracted government shutdowns that reflect the deep partisan divisions in Washington.
Sinema embraced the “happy warrior” label hung on her in the past and said her hopes for a better atmosphere are also tempered by reality.
“I think this challenge is actually quite difficult and becoming more difficult by the influence of misinformation and disinformation that occurs in our community,” she said. “But I also believe that we can overcome it. … I am optimistic, but I’m not naive.”
If there is a change in Washington, Sinema said, it only will happen with compromise and sacrifice, qualities often missing in recent years.
Sinema said the virus relief legislation still being negotiated will help Arizonans on several fronts.
The package is likely to include direct payments to “middle-income and working-class” taxpayers of about $600 per person. That would be about half the level of the first payments. It also could include $300 extra in weekly unemployment aid available for about three months.
“These are not numbers that can be taken to the bank, so to speak,” she said of the deal that was in progress. “They are still fluid.”
She said she was hopeful the negotiations will include more funds for small businesses, known as the Paycheck Protection Program. That could include a provision of hers, along with Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., to make it easy to forgive loans to businesses that received $150,000 or less from the program.
“The PPP is a real lifeline for small businesses that got a PPP in the spring, have used that money to mitigate some of their losses or to stay afloat, and are looking for further relief,” she said.
The virus aid deal likely will include provisions for rental relief, extension of an eviction moratorium for several months and a pause in student loans as well, she said. The deal could be finalized by Thursday night, voted on in the House on Friday and in the Senate on Saturday, she said, adding that it remained uncertain.
Sinema repeated her wish that Ducey would “implement a statewide mask policy that’s backed up by enforcement.”
Biden has said he plans to seek a federal mask mandate for his first 100 days in office. That only would begin, however, in January.
“We know that that will raise the level of compliance,” she said. “Studies show that mask-wearing successfully slows the spread of transmission. And a recent (U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) study in Arizona showed that cases decreased by 75% when mask wearing was implemented by local cities and counties after the governor chose not to do so.”
Sinema favors closing some indoor public areas, such as indoor bars and gyms, and limiting the numbers allowed to gather inside other venues. Sinema called again on Ducey to disperse more federal funds to Arizona’s smaller localities, as Congress had intended.