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the national interest

Democrats Have Two Long-Shot Plans to Deal With Kyrsten Sinema

Hail Mary time.

Photo: Intelligencer. Photos: Getty Images

Kyrsten Sinema has derailed President Biden’s domestic agenda by opposing the major revenue-increasing provisions that finance it. Democrats are working on two strategies to deal with her objections. Both of them are long shots.

The first strategy is to try to craft some alternate suite of progressive tax hikes that would satisfy Sinema. Sinema has expressed opposition to increases in marginal rates for businesses, high-income individuals, or capital gains, which describe the main ways Democrats propose to raise taxes on the rich.

Now, in theory, they could still accomplish their objective of raising tax revenue from the very rich without raising tax rates. Democrats are floating plans like this, including an alternative minimum tax for corporations and a tax on billionaire wealth. These are all wonderful ideas, and if Biden could find a way to get them to his desk, it would be a historic accomplishment.

But actually starting from scratch and designing new tax-reform proposals is extraordinarily difficult. What’s more, these new ideas are far more complex than the relatively simple method of raising rates a few points. The technical task of designing and passing these kinds of tax reforms on the deadline Democrats need seems extremely ambitious.

Of course, if it’s the only way to get Sinema’s support, you do it. But the assumption that she would actually support these measures gives her far too much credit. What seems to have happened is that rich people and businesses lobbying against Biden’s plan have gotten Sinema’s ear and persuaded her that raising their tax rates will have all sorts of terrible effects on the economy (evidence be damned).

Democrats are trying to work around these objections by offering different tax increases on the wealthy, but as soon as those ideas become a serious possibility to be enacted, wealthy people will start lobbying against those tax hikes, too. And not only would Democrats need Sinema to resist that lobbying campaign, they would need to hold on to 49 other senators and all but three of their House members.

If you take Sinema’s current arguments very seriously and literally, she simply has a wonkish objection to the policy design, and her concerns can be satisfied with a different suite of tax hikes. A more cynical analysis would say that the only reason those alternate ideas have any purchase is that rich people haven’t lobbied her on them yet.

This brings us to the second desperation plan: Punchbowl News reports Democrats are considering just making a deal with all the Democrats other than Sinema and daring her to vote no:

A new strategy is emerging among Democrats at the White House and on Capitol Hill as they scramble to put together an agreement on the centerpiece of President Joe Biden’s legislative agenda, a multi-trillion dollar reconciliation package focused on new social spending programs.


They want to isolate Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.).


After months of talks that have alternated between productive, maddening, fruitful and deadlocked, White House officials and Capitol Hill Democrats now believe it will be easier to find agreement with Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) than Sinema. 


So while the Biden administration and Senate Democratic leadership plan to work with both Sinema and Manchin, they now believe it would be more productive to seek a deal with Manchin, bring House and Senate progressives on board and then dare Sinema to block it.

This plan is more realistic than the first one. It assumes Sinema is a rational actor who wishes to remain a senator. Her best chance of holding office, by far, is on the Democratic Party ballot line. (Republicans would never nominate her, and winning as an independent when both parties are running against you is nearly impossible.) Sinema has plenty of time to patch things up with her party if she ultimately votes for Biden’s plan. But if she singlehandedly kills a deal all the other Democrats including Manchin can support, she will blow up her relationship with Democrats in a way that likely cannot be repaired.

But it is, at best, very high-risk. It’s not clear Sinema is a rational actor. She appears deeply invested in a personal narrative in which she is the Democratic version of John McCain, bravely defying her party to stand up for bipartisanship. And, while this is armchair psychoanalysis, her history in the Green Party is a kind of through-line to a personal style that has remained consistent even as her ideological commitments have changed radically.

Sinema, like many Green Party types, sees politics as an avenue for personal expression. Attempting to persuade a Green Party candidate not to take action X because it will have consequence Y just makes them angry. In 2000, Ralph Nader was surrounded by advisers who saw exactly what outcome his campaign would have (electing George W. Bush) but simply could not get him to budge. Nader’s own account of this campaign reveals a mind unable to think in straightforward consequentialist terms — he was too fixated on his right to do what he wanted to measure his actions in any practical way.

Pressuring Sinema to go along with the rest of her party might work, and it would appeal to her self-preservation instinct. But it could also set her up to make the high-profile display of independence she appears to crave. If you think she is simply a shallow narcissist, cornering her would be the worst possible strategy.

Sinema is not Ralph Nader — at least not yet. She may ultimately be able to understand that her self-interest requires compromise. Some of her colleagues believe, or perhaps just hope, this is the case. “On PhRMA and on revenue, I’m struggling to really grasp what her endgame is. But she insists: ‘I will get there, I’m not going to tank this. I will work out something,’” one Democratic senator told Politico. “She has insisted repeatedly that she will come to an agreement that is going to work, that is within the rough scale currently under discussion with the president.”

In the meantime, Democrats are supposed to be closing in on a deal, and they are casting around for high-risk solutions. The conventional wisdom has held for months that somehow Democrats would pull it together in the end. The state of affairs appears much shakier than people realize.

Biden Has Two Long-Shot Plans to Placate Kyrsten Sinema