After spending most of 2022 getting little done and watching their already slim chances of holding onto their even slimmer congressional majorities slip away, Democrats finally have some momentum.
On Wednesday, West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin surprised everyone with a rare piece of good news. After spending the better portion of a year blocking the Senate from passing the centerpiece of Biden’s agenda, he suddenly decided that it was time to move forward with a version of the bill—thanks to some minor changes to tax law and, crucially, the easing of federal gas pipeline regulations. Dubbed the “Inflation Reduction Act”—another core selling point—the resulting legislation would lower health care costs, fight climate change, and reduce the deficit. Finally, after months stuck in the mud, the Democrats had some momentum; with the midterms fast approaching, they were finally getting things done. Maybe.
Enter Kyrsten Sinema.
For much of 2022, Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema has been very un–Kyrsten Sinemalike: She’s been quiet. After spending much of the first year of Joe Biden’s presidency as a thorn in the side of just about anyone trying to move forward policy—usually for reasons that were either opaque or that made little sense—she has largely stayed out of the limelight. Instead, it has been Manchin who has spent the year as America’s prime minister, effectively deciding what legislation does and doesn’t get passed.
Sinema’s response to the new Inflation Reduction Act has been ominous. Asked about the bill shortly after news first emerged that Manchin had reached a deal with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer on Wednesday, Sinema seemed blindsided. “What’s going on?” she asked on the floor of the Senate. Her office, meanwhile, has refused to comment on the bill. “We do not have a comment, as she will need to review the text,” a Sinema spokesperson told the press.
Manchin’s motivations have been easier to parse than Sinema’s. He clearly sees breaking with national Democrats to be beneficial for him in his home state, which went to Donald Trump by nearly 40 points in 2020. He similarly caters to energy interests in his home state (the relaxations of federal pipeline regulations will help a proposed shale gas pipeline between West Virginia and Virginia go forward). He has, moreover, been relatively clear about what he was and wasn’t willing to consider as part of a Democratic spending bill and was insistent that such a program not contribute to the deficit or inflation.
Sinema may be trying to cosplay John McCain’s overhyped “maverick” persona as a way of holding onto her Senate seat—though she seems unlikely at this juncture to survive a primary when she goes up for reelection in 2024. No one has any real idea what she wants, and she has largely refused to participate in negotiations over Build Back Better, instead emerging every so often from the peanut gallery with a new set of demands. She is particularly insistent that any spending bill not increase taxes on the wealthy. (The Inflation Reduction Act increases the minimum corporate tax rate to 15 percent, closes the carried interest loophole, and provides more funding for IRS enforcement but does not contain direct tax increases on the rich.)
According to The New Republic’s Grace Segers, Manchin says he has not spoken to Sinema about the Inflation Reduction Act but “would hope she would be receptive.” “We didn’t raise taxes, so she should be happy with that,” he added.
Sinema has been put in a bit of a bind by the Schumer-Manchin deal—she is currently on record supporting nearly everything in the deal. And yet she is very much on record opposing the closing of the carried interest loophole, which would provide about $14 billion in revenue. And yet, with Sinema, past precedent hardly matters. Here is an opportunity once again to put herself in the center of negotiations and block the Democratic agenda, for whatever reason she pleases. Or for no reason at all.
Sinema is hardly alone. In the House, the group of so-called “moderate” Democrats led by New Jersey Representative Josh Gottheimer could also kill the bill. But this is truly Sinema’s time to shine. It’s her Manchin moment. Just when things are finally turning around for her party, she can step in and stop it with a big thumbs-down.