By Lauren Fox, Clare Foran and Ali Zaslav, CNN
Kyrsten Sinema, the influential moderate Democratic senator from Arizona, did not commit to voting for President Joe Biden’s sweeping social safety net legislation in a sit-down interview with CNN on Thursday, the latest sign that Senate Democrats do not yet have the votes to pass one of the party’s top legislative priorities even as leadership hopes to approve the measure before Christmas.
Sinema indicated she plans to continue negotiating over the bill. Asked if she is prepared to vote “yes” when the legislation, known as the Build Back Better Act, comes to the Senate floor, Sinema would not say.
“I am always prepared to vote and to vote for what’s right for the interests of Arizona,” she said.
Pressed on what changes she would like to see to the version that recently passed the House of Representatives, Sinema responded, “When you negotiate directly in good faith with your colleagues and don’t negotiate publicly, you’re actually much more likely to find that agreement and get to an achievement that serves the interests of the people of your community, and that’s what I’ll continue to do as we negotiate the Build Back Better plan.”
Sinema has become one of the most influential members of Congress as a critical vote Senate Democrats need to enact Biden’s legislative agenda. They cannot afford to lose a single vote from their 50-member caucus to pass the social safety net expansion, a dynamic that has given Sinema, along with West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, another prominent moderate Democrat, significant sway to shape the legislation.
Before the start of the interview on Thursday, Sinema’s cellphone rang. Her ringtone is the refrain from a song in the musical “Hamilton” that includes the lyrics “you don’t have the votes.” It’s been her ringtone since 2015, the year the musical was originally released, her spokesman told CNN.
In recent months, progressives have criticized Sinema and Manchin for their positions, with some arguing that Sinema is an enigma, hard to pin down and not forthcoming about where she stands.
Sinema insists she’s clear about her positions but that sometimes people don’t like what she says.
“I think I’m very direct. I am very upfront when I talk to folks about what I believe in, what I can support and what I can’t support. I think there are some people who just don’t like what they’re hearing and maybe they use other terms to describe it,” she said. “Folks in Arizona know that I’ve always been a straight shooter and always will be.”
Sinema — who has served in the Senate since 2019 — emerged this year as a major negotiator in the President’s agenda, helping to work with Republicans for months to craft the President’s infrastructure bill.
“I don’t really spend much time thinking about what other people are saying publicly,” she said. “I really just try to stay focused on the negotiations at hand. Number one, I stay focused on delivering results for folks in Arizona. I don’t really care what other folks are saying out loud, whether they’re saying it on television or in a newspaper.”
She took the lead on the Democratic side in that negotiation, a push that culminated in Biden signing into law a sweeping $1.2 trillion bill that will make investments in roads, bridges, mass transit, rail, airports and waterways.
And the Arizona Democrat has already exerted enormous influence over the Build Back Better Act, which would expand the social safety net by providing aid to families, expanding access to health care and tackling the climate crisis.
While liberal Democrats originally wanted a $3.5 trillion price tag for the package, Sinema made clear she would not support that as a top-line number. Manchin also objected to $3.5 trillion, and the cost of the legislation has now been reduced to roughly $1.9 trillion.
Sinema also made clear early on in the talks that she wouldn’t support an increase in the corporate tax rate by a single percentage point, a position that Democratic congressional leaders and the White House spent weeks trying to change her mind on. She would not budge.
Sinema made clear in the interview that she’s no fan of party leaders overpromising what can be included in a bill, saying that it risks making the American public angry and apathetic.
“I would never promise something to the American people that I can’t deliver and I think it’s not responsible for elected leaders to do that,” she said.
“Being honest is the most appropriate way to engage in any interaction, whether it’s in a political setting or in a personal setting, but I also believe that when elected leaders on either side of the political aisle promise things that cannot be delivered it actually exacerbates the political problems we face in our country,” she said, “and people become more angry or even apathetic and want to turn away from the political process, because they feel like no one is telling them the truth or being honest with them.”
Negotiations over Build Back Better and the bipartisan infrastructure bill
Sinema went into detail over why she opposed a $3.5 trillion price tag for the Build Back Better Act and outlined concerns over inflation and the toll it’s taking on the American public.
“I won’t support any legislation that increases burdens on Arizona or American businesses and reduces our ability to compete either domestically or globally,” she said. “That’s one of the reasons I said I wasn’t able to support a $3.5 trillion bill.”
Sinema went on to say, “Inflation is a real problem in our country right now,” adding, “I want to make sure that if we are crafting legislation, we are doing it in a lean and efficient way that is fiscally responsible and doesn’t impact things like inflation or make our businesses less competitive.”
Manchin has also expressed concerns about rising inflation, an issue that Republicans are already using to attack Biden over.
Asked if she wants paid family leave to be part of the Build Back Better Act, Sinema said, “I have long said I support paid family leave,” but that “I also understand we’re in the middle of a negotiation, so I’m not going to spend a lot of time talking with you about the nuances of that negotiation because I would like to get to a result, but folks know my position on this issue.”
House Democrats included paid family leave in the House version of the legislation, but Manchin has signaled he will not support that as part of the social safety net package.
As she discussed negotiating major legislation, Sinema spoke about what it was like to work with Biden during the effort to secure a deal on the separate infrastructure package and how the President had encouraged a bipartisan outcome.
“President Biden served in the Senate for a long time so he knows how negotiations work, and he also during this process called me repeatedly and asked me to continue working with (Ohio GOP) Sen. Rob Portman and others … to find this bipartisan agreement and showed a real commitment to wanting this bipartisan achievement, which we’ve accomplished ,” she said.
Sinema speaks about benefits of vaccination in personal terms
Sinema reiterated her support of Covid-19 vaccines as she encouraged everyone to get the shot and spoke about how the vaccination has impacted her own life.
“I am very grateful to have had the vaccine myself. It allowed me to see my aunt for the first time in a year and a half. She has an immunocompromised system, so throughout the entire pandemic I wasn’t able to see her in person. I would actually just stand outside the window of her house and we would talk on the phone through the window because I was so nervous that I could accidentally infect her,” she said.
“So when the vaccine was available, I was so excited to get it and she was so excited to get it, and two weeks after our second vaccine, we were able to get together in person and hug.”
“I think about how the vaccine has changed my life and I encourage all Arizonans to also get vaccinated so that we can return to the lives that we love,” she said.
But Sinema would not say whether she’d vote with her Democratic colleagues to keep the Biden administration’s vaccine mandate for businesses funded if it came up for a vote. This comes as a group of Republicans senators are threatening to object to a quick vote to approve a stopgap bill to keep the government funded past a Friday at midnight deadline, unless they get a vote on an amendment to defund the mandate at a 51-vote threshold.
“I’m not going to tell you those things,” she said, when asked if she’d be willing to vote with Democrats to keep it funded. “What I will do, though, is make sure that I’m voting in the interest of Arizonans.”
Sinema discusses the state of American politics
Over the last year, as Sinema’s profile has risen, some run-ins with her critics have intensified.
The Arizona Democrat spoke about a high-profile incident when activists confronted her in a public bathroom and what she thinks that means about the state of politics today.
She said that hile she strongly supports the First Amendment and continues to encourage Arizonans to tell her what they think, she believes it was “not appropriate” and the “appropriate authorities are taking action.”
“There is a line, however, and when individuals choose to engage in illegal activity, and most importantly, in this instance, violate the privacy rights of the students that I’m working with at Arizona State University,” Sinema said. “That’s not appropriate. My students are working hard to earn their degrees, so they can serve their community in Arizona. They did not sign up to be harassed in a restroom or have their privacy violated on the internet. And that’s what I think is inappropriate. So I voiced that concern, and appropriate authorities are taking action.”
Sinema said, however, that there are places where politics is working. She held up the fact that Republicans and Democrats were able to come together to support and pass a major infrastructure bill, as evidence that bipartisanship can still produce results in Washington.
“If you’re really committed to finding a solution in a bipartisan way, you can do it. It’s not easy, takes a long time, can be really difficult, but I think that’s what our forefathers intended when they created this form of government,” she said.
“Not only did we pass a historic piece of legislation, once-in-a-generation investment in jobs and in infrastructure in our country, we also showed the country and the world that bipartisanship can still work, and that we can get things done when we work together.”
Sinema reflected on what she has learned since she first started out in politics when asked about how she was known as more progressive earlier in her political career and what changed.
“One of the things that changed was I learned a lot,” she said. “I was serving over the years in the state legislature and now in the United States Congress and I’ve had an opportunity to learn from so many people across my district and then later, now the whole state of Arizona.”
“It’s helped me grow as someone who serves them and represents them,” she added. “I’ve always said I think one of the greatest strengths that an individual can have, not just as a legislator but as an adult or as a human, is to show the capacity to learn and grow. I think I’m pretty good at that. I’m a lifelong learner and I’m proud to say that over the years I take the time to listen.”
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