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What does Kyrsten Sinema want out of spending negotiations? Here's what we know

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., arrives at the U.S. Capitol on Oct. 5. Her opposition to Democrats' proposed spending package is forcing changes, but her specific positions have been hard to pin down.
Kevin Dietsch
Getty Images
Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., arrives at the U.S. Capitol on Oct. 5. Her opposition to Democrats' proposed spending package is forcing changes, but her specific positions have been hard to pin down.

Updated October 26, 2021 at 7:56 PM ET

If we knew the answer to what Sen. Kyrsten Sinema wants, a whole lot of things could be figured out.

When it comes to the delicate negotiations about trillions of dollars in spending that could reshape the social safety net for years to come, the Arizona Democrat seems to hold the key.

While Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., has gained a lot of attention for his demands, threats and possible concessions, that's largely because he has been available for the attention. He has written op-eds, has been on Sunday shows and even had breakfast with President Biden this weekend in Wilmington, Del.

Sinema, whom Biden calls "smart as the devil," has been more of a riddle.

"Sen. Sinema does not negotiate policy details through the press," Sinema spokesman John LaBombard said in a statement. He has also said, "She would not be involved in these negotiations for months if she wasn't trying to get to a deal."

So what does Sinema want? We don't know everything, but we do know some of what she's for — and against. A lot of it came from Biden himself last week in a CNN town hall, where he was unusually specific for a president involved in congressional negotiations.

Here's some of what we know about Sinema's position:

What she's for

Medicare vouchers to cover hearing. "The hearing is a very important thing because as Kyrsten Sinema, who supports this, points out, hearing is directly related to dementia," Biden said in the town hall. "When you can't hear, you have a problem. And it impacts on dementia."

Environmental policies in the plan. "She's very supportive of the environmental agenda in my legislation, very supportive," Biden said.

With the West facing historic droughts, Sinema herself told The Arizona Republic in September: "We know that a changing climate costs Arizonans. And right now, we have the opportunity to pass smart policies to address it — looking forward to that."

(Of course, this is where the legislation runs into problems with Manchin, whose state is reliant on the coal industry.)

"Family care." "She's supportive of all — almost all of the things I mentioned relating to everything from family care to all — to all those issues," Biden said at the town hall. Biden's plan proposes paid family leave for 12 weeks, though that has been whittled down to four because of Manchin's opposition.

What she's against

The price tag. Back in July, Sinema released a rare statement on the negotiations, saying she was against the $3.5 trillion initial cost: "While I will support beginning this process, I do not support a bill that costs $3.5 trillion — and in the coming months, I will work in good faith to develop this legislation with my colleagues and the administration to strengthen Arizona's economy and help Arizona's everyday families get ahead."

The bill has since reportedly been dramatically reduced to less than $2 trillion.

Tax hikes for corporations and income tax increases for the wealthy. "Where she's not supportive is, she says she will not raise a single penny in taxes on the corporate side and/or on wealthy people, period," Biden said. "And so that's where it sort of breaks down. And there's a few other issues it breaks down on."

Biden seemed to suggest, though, that this was still under negotiation: "I'm willing to make sure that we pay for everything without anyone making less than $400,000 paying a single cent more in taxes. That's my objective."

The confusing part of Sinema's opposition here, however, for Democrats is that she opposed the cuts to the Trump-era corporate tax rate.

"It makes you wonder: What are the special interests that are driving that decision?" Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., has said. "It's obviously not conviction, because she voted against the tax cuts in the first place."

The White House later clarified that Sinema could be in favor of raising revenue in other kinds of ways: "The President was referring to the challenge of having the votes to move forward on raising the corporate rate, not to the ability to raise revenue through a range of other tax fairness proposals, which Senator Sinema supports."

Could that mean a "wealth tax" is in the offing? Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., hasapparently been talking to Sinemaabout that possibility. But it's not something Democrats even have all the details worked out on about how to make that feasible.

On Tuesday evening, Sinema announced she's in favor of a corporate minimum tax, which would target companies that avoid paying the corporate tax rate.

Free community college. "So far, Mr. Manchin and one other person has indicated that they will not support free community college," Biden said as to why that campaign promise is unlikely to be in the final package. Sinema is presumed to be the "other person."

Covering dental and vision under Medicare. One element that members of the Senate Democratic Caucus, especially Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, have pushed for is Medicare to cover hearing, dental and vision. Biden said hearing appears to be an easier item because it's "cheaper," but there's no consensus on paying for glasses and dental, which is the "most expensive" of the three. Manchin, he said, is opposed to covering those things because he's concerned about the solvency of Medicare and isn't interested in Medicare reform right now, Biden said.

Sinema's specific reasoning was ... less clear.

Allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices. Biden is seeking an overhaul to how drug prices are negotiated in the Medicare program. We don't know specifically why Sinema is opposed to it, but progressives have pointed out that Sinema is a "pharma favorite" who has received hefty donations from the industry.

This is an area where it's not because of "Sinemanchin" that this provision is in jeopardy. Manchin is actually in favor of this. But other Democrats high on the list of recipients from the pharmaceutical industry, like Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., are not yet sure how they will vote. Menendez previously opposed legislation that would have allowed this, but his office says he is "waiting to see the Senate Finance Committee proposal, which we expect will include Medicare negotiations before making up his mind on the issue."

Being in the pocket of a particular industry is a charge often lobbed at various members. It can be difficult to prove whether that's a deciding factor for a particular member.

Political prospects

Sinema, the once left-wing environmental activist and former local Green Party spokeswoman with an offbeat style, began her political career in the Arizona State Legislature.

She won election to the Arizona House in 2004, then the Arizona Senate in 2010, before running and winning a U.S. congressional seat in 2012. She became a U.S. senator in 2019 after winning a close and contentious election to fill the seat previously held by Republican Jeff Flake, who retired.

Despite Sinema's more progressive beginnings, Arizona is far from a liberal bastion. She has built a brand around independence instead, trying to thread a needle to the Senate. Many of her ads during her Senate run included the word "independent."

The closeness of Arizona was underscored by the 2020 presidential election. The state was decided in favor of Biden by slightly more than 10,000 votes, or 0.3 percentage points. It was the first time Arizona went to a Democrat in a presidential election in 25 years. (And there was a significant third-party candidate on the ballot.)

But anger toward Sinema from the left has boiled over.

Rep. Ritchie Torres, D-N.Y., has said he feels as if Democrats are living under the "tyranny of Kyrsten Sinema" and has accused her of "erraticism."

Some on her veterans advisory committee have resigned over her role in the talks, calling her one of the "principal obstacles to progress, answering to big donors rather than your own people."

The left has also spent hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to pressure Sinema to side with Biden and other Democrats over the legislation.

Some progressives are trying to recruit other Democrats to primary her. A group of wealthy progressive donors launched a political action committee that's running ads to try to drum up interest in the idea. At least one House Democratic colleague has not ruled it out.

And her approval ratings among Democrats in Arizona have tumbled.

Sinema has not been cowed by the pressure. She has about $4.5 million of cash on hand, as of her latest Federal Election Commission filings, and isn't up for reelection until 2024.

Her fellow U.S. senator, Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., has defended her, particularly for her role in the negotiations to get approval from Republican senators for the traditional infrastructure bill that is supposed to be a package deal with this social safety net plan.

"I don't think we would have gotten that across the finish line without all of her hard work," Kelly said last Wednesday. "I think without her it wouldn't have happened, so she deserves a ton of credit for that."

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said late last week that 90% of the legislation is written. Biden would like at least a framework hammered out before he heads to Europe for important conferences, including one on climate change.

"There's not that much more time," Pelosi said Tuesday. "We have to have decisions largely today, a little bit into tomorrow, so we can proceed."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.