WASHINGTON — Senator Kirsten Senema, a centrist Arizona Democrat, has spent the past 12 months striking big deals with Republicans on issues such as infrastructure and gun repair.
Now, House and Senate Democrats, desperate for a historic victory on climate, health care and taxes before the midterms, are hoping she’s ready to strike a deal with her party.
In recent days, features of a possible agreement with Sinema have begun to emerge. I’ve long opposed a clause in the deal Manchin struck with majority leader Chuck Schumer: closing a so-called carry-on interest tax loophole that helps wealthy private equity and hedge fund managers pay lower taxes.
Sinema is also looking to make changes to the 15% minimum corporate tax, according to three sources familiar with NBC News. Manufacturers – large and small – say the proposed change could hurt their business because they rely on the existing structure to depreciate taxable assets to offset equipment costs and plant space. Corporate tax was the bulk of Tuesday’s 20-minute Zoom call with Sinema and Arizona Chamber of Commerce.
A source on the call said the senator made no promises or drew any red lines. She told the chamber that she would try to “improve” the bill, according to the source, who said that Cinema had given the impression that it would not oppose the legislation if it did not change.
In addition, Sinema is paying for $5 billion for drought prevention, two sources said, an issue of great importance to Arizona.
No Democratic senator pretends to know what Cinema thinks, and they don’t try to speak for her. Many said they had no comment on her regarding the bill, giving her what they hope will be enough room to reach a “yes”.
“I don’t want to talk about Senator Cinema,” said Senator Bernie Sanders, who holds caucuses with Democrats.
“I don’t do things related to Sinema,” added Senator Brian Schatz, a Democrat from Hawaii, although he added that Democrats are on track to pass important bills this summer.
Getting the party’s other obscure moderate, Senator Joe Manchin, of DW.Va, to sign the $739 billion reconciliation package was a huge victory for Democrats, who earlier this summer ditched a sweeping spending deal. But given that Democrats need all 50 senators to join in, now is the time for Cinema to take a stand on the legislation.
On Saturday afternoon, senators will hold their first procedural vote on the inflation-reduction law, with a vote on the amendment expected later in the week. It is not clear if any proposed changes by Sinema will be incorporated beforehand or during the editing process. Schumer’s policy director was seen on Thursday afternoon moving between his office and the office of a cinema hideout in the basement of the Capitol, suggesting that a deal may be in the works.
But any revisions that Sinema seeks could put pressure on the shaky Mansion-Schumer deal, which nearly all Democrats are willing to support. Senator Ben Ray Logan of neighboring New Mexico, along with other Western Democrats, said they’d like to see some of the drought money that Cinema wants for their states, too.
Other Democrats are fighting to preserve the tax provision that addresses the transferred interest, though they haven’t said it would be a deal-breaker if the language were stripped. This provision will raise $14 billion in revenue — a drop in the group compared to the broader package.
“I hope you’ll consider supporting the Democratic position. Interest loaded is a farce,” said the majority whip Dick Durbin, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate.
“There are some of the richest people in America – the richest millionaires and billionaires – who are taking advantage of this loophole. They are not risking a penny and are walking away with special tax treatment. This must end.”
Sinema did not comment on the expulsion on Thursday. Her spokeswoman said the senator is waiting for the senator to decide whether some elements of the package need to be removed before deciding whether to support bringing the bill into a vote on Saturday.
But Cinema was active in lobbying her colleagues on Thursday. She spoke with Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Todd Young of Indiana, Rob Portman of Ohio and other Senate Republicans as she whipped up GOP support for a vote on one of her Arizona constituents, Rupali Desai, to be a federal appeals judge for the 9th Circuit.
Once, Cinema withdrew from the doors of the Capitol, shouting, “Has anyone seen dead?” She located Senator Mitt Romney, and escorted him to the Senate floor, where the Utah Republican voted yes on Desai’s nomination. Desai was confirmed 67-29, with 19 Republicans voting yes.
Sinema’s ability to operate across the boardwalk is on display all year long. Earlier this summer, she and Senator Chris Murphy, Democrat of Connection, struck a big deal on gun legislation with Senators John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Tom Telles, RN.C. , after a mass shooting at an elementary school in Texas and a New York grocery store. And in August 2021, she and Portman led a bipartisan group of senators that reached agreement on a $550 billion infrastructure package to fund the nation’s roads, public transportation, water and broadband. Both bills became law.
Senator Jerry Moran, a Republican from Cannes, who was part of Sinema’s Infrastructure Working Group and co-sponsored several bills with it, said it’s now in the driver’s seat on the $739 billion reconciliation package.
“I have always found her honest, straightforward and looking for a solution. She is fun to work with,” Moran said in an interview on Thursday. “They obviously need her to be successful. She is in a position and has the capabilities and capacity to be a successful negotiator.”
Democrats who have worked and served with Sinema for years remain optimistic.
“I am a friend of Kyrsten Sinema. I respect Kirsten Sinema. I think she’s a good person,” Logan, who also served with Sinema in the house, told NBC News. “She’ll pay, as the senator has proven she does. In the end, what I hope is that we can all get together and not make adjustments that might inconvenience anyone in the gathering, and we’re able to get that over with. That seems to be the way we’re going.”
Back home in Arizona, Sinema is facing a heat from the left to support her spending package and will likely have to face the primary challenge when her seat comes before voters again in 2024.
“This is behavior that we have experienced from Senator Cinemas in the past two years — the lack of contact or conversation with voters, and her actions that prioritize special interests and the people who fund her campaign at the expense of the people of Arizona,” Luis Avila said. A community organizer in Phoenix who works with Primary Sinema PAC.
Her relationship with state Democrats has deteriorated since she gave a fickle thumbs-up in the Senate last year over the $15 minimum wage bill. Things got even worse after she refused to change the opt-out rule that would have helped pass a major voting rights bill.
Some Democrats, including a former Sinema aide who spoke to NBC News on the condition of anonymity, believe that scuttling the new spending bill would quell her re-election hopes. Emily Kirkland, progressive strategist in Tempe, Arizona, agreed.
“I don’t think she can get back on good terms with the Democrats and the independents unless she agrees to this deal,” Kirkland said. It is “extremely frustrating and disappointing” that Sinema is threatening the bill in order to protect the “tax exemption for hedge fund managers”.
Scott Wong and Julie Tserkin report from Washington, D.C. and Sahil Kapoor from Phoenix.