On the eve of Democrats’ doomed vote to reform the filibuster, Joe Manchin took the Senate floor to bemoan the rise of partisan rancor on Capitol Hill and proclaim, “I don’t know what happened to the good old days but I can tell you they are not here now.”
But Wednesday felt a little bit like the good old days in the Senate. In a rare sight, the chamber was filled with members actually listening to debate. In the corner, hunched over a cell phone, one senator was about to do something old-fashioned: Risk their career on a matter of principle.
And so, Kyrsten Sinema did just that and voted to preserve the filibuster and by doing so prevent her own party from advancing voting-rights legislation they consider vital to preserving democracy.
She was absent from the chamber for most of the final hour of debate where Democrats inveighed against the filibuster. Minutes after listening to Mitch McConnell’s speech, she slipped out of the chamber and returned with a bag of cough drops, from which she carefully unwrapped one and slipped under her face mask. Then as the roll call began, she prepared for her big moment. She reached into her overstuffed handbag and pulled out a brush she ran through her hair. Then, removing her mask, she applied a layer of powder to her face and carefully re-did her lipstick. Then she pressed the cough-drop wrapper to her lips, letting the lozenge drop out and chasing it with a sip of water. She looked tense as senator after senator stood up to solemnly pronounce their vote, smoothing out the wrinkles in her sweater, until finally her name was called. She stood up erect, both hands on her desk, and shouted “aye.”
After the vote was over, Mitt Romney went over to Sinema and told her, “I respect your strength and character. Congratulations,” he recalled minutes later, and she replied, “Thank you.” The Republican senator, who voted twice to impeach Donald Trump, told Intelligencer that Sinema’s vote “was an act of an extraordinary political courage, the likes of which I have not seen in my political career.”
In Sinema’s view, the key threat facing the country is “the underlying disease of division,” as she put it during a defense she offered of the Senate floor last week, and she argued for a “long-term approach as serious as the problems we seek to solve — one that prioritizes listening and understanding.” The smirk on Arkansas senator Tom Cotton’s face was nearly a mile wide as he cheerily mingled with other Republicans after her remarks. Not only had she derailed the Democratic push to reform Senate rules to pass voting-rights legislation but did so only minutes before Joe Biden arrived on Capitol Hill to lobby on the issue.
In the days that followed, Sinema has become public enemy number one on the left. While Manchin, who also voted with Republicans on the filibuster, is given some leeway — he is the last anti-abortion Democrat who represents a ruby-red state that Donald Trump won overwhelmingly — Sinema is regarded as a traitor by liberals: a former Green Party activist, the first bisexual member of Congress, and the first to claim that she had no religion upon being elected who is now upending key planks of Biden’s agenda. Even before the debate on the filibuster, Sinema had frustrated liberals with her refusal to move forward on Biden’s social-spending plan and raised their ire with her ostentatious opposition to a minimum-wage increase.
Groups that had once strongly backed Sinema warned they would not support her if she opposed changing the filibuster. For instance, EMILY’s List, the influential pro-choice PAC that spent heavily to back her in her 2018 campaign, including a $1.7 million independent expenditure effort, called filibuster reform a litmus test. “If Senator Sinema can not support a path forward for the passage of this legislation, we believe she undermines the foundations of our democracy, her own path to victory, and also the mission of EMILY’s List, and we will be unable to endorse her moving forward,” the group’s president, Laphonza Butler, said in a statement.
She also faces a potential primary challenge at home. In a rare denunciation, Congressman Ruben Gallego, seen as a potential Democratic opponent in two years, called Sinema out by name on the House floor last week. “We won’t shrink from protecting our democracy and the voting rights of all Americans. It’s past time for the U.S. Senate and Senator Sinema to do the same,” he said shortly after her speech.
“I don’t know how she wins a Democratic primary for Senate,” Andres Cano, a Democratic state representative from Tucson, told Intelligencer. “There comes a point where we have to question whose interests that Senator Sinema will pay attention to” after noting her lack of town-hall meetings and non-responsiveness to concerns about voting rights raised by constituents. In his view, her opposition to voting rights and other progressive priorities was a “direct affront” to the grassroots effort that made Sinema Arizona’s first Democratic senator in decades.