This week on the Waves, Slate staff writers Christina Cauterucci and Julia Craven talk about Kyrsten Sinema, the first-term Senator from Arizona whose position on the filibuster (and flamboyant wigs) have gotten her quite a bit of attention recently. They unpack her politics and her wardrobe, whether one has anything to do with the other, and what her position on bipartisanship really means. A lightly edited transcript of their attempt to discern her deeply held political positions follows. Listen to the full episode here:
Christina Cauterucci: I want to get into the main reason why Sinema has been attracting more attention and scrutiny now than she ever has before, and that’s the filibuster. So, with a 50/50 divided Senate and Kamala Harris as the tiebreaker, the Democrats need to get 10 Republicans on board with any non-budgetary legislation they want to pass while the filibuster is in place.
So, in other words, the Democrats will not get anything done while they’re in power unless they kiss the filibuster goodbye. And Sinema and Joe Manchin have been really the only staunch holdouts on filibuster reform. Some of the other senators have sort of said, “I don’t think it’s a great idea.” But they could be convinced—if it actually came down to it, they would vote to reform the filibuster or get rid of it.
But Sinema has gotten even further than Manchin on this. And she says she wants to expand the filibuster to include nominations from the president as well. Here’s a clip of her defending the filibuster in a video that was tweeted by Sahil Kapoor:
Kyrsten Sinema: Well, as folks in Arizona know, I’ve long been a supporter of the filibuster because it is a tool that protects the democracy of our nation, rather than allowing our country to ricochet wildly every two to four years back and forth between policies. The idea of the filibuster was created by those who came before us, the United States Senate, to create comity and to encourage senators to find bipartisanship and work together. And while there are some who don’t believe that bipartisanship is possible, I think that I’m a daily example that bipartisanship is possible. Not just this trip today and tomorrow that John [Cornyn, R-TX] and I are doing, but the work that John and I, and many other of my colleagues in both parties do on a regular basis. So, to those who say, “We must make a choice between the filibuster and X,” I say this is a false choice.
The reality is that when you have a system that’s not working effectively—and I would think that most would agree that the Senate’s not particularly well-oiled machine, right—the way to fix that is to change your behavior. Not to eliminate the rules or change the rules, but to change your behavior. So, I’m going to continue to go to work every day, aggressively seeking bipartisanship in a cheerful and happy warrior way as I always do. And showing that when we work together, we can get things done.
Cauterucci: So, none of what she said is true. The filibuster was sort of a loophole in the Senate rules. It was not intentionally created at all. It was not a deliberate way to, as she said, create comity and encouraged by partisanship. It was kind of a random interpretation of the rules that has been largely in the past used to oppose civil rights legislation.
Julia Craven: Joan Walsh, who writes for The Nation, connected this to Barry Goldwater—who is another former Senator from Arizona—alluding that the way to end racism was to change hearts and minds and not laws. (Yes, that’s where that mainstream narrative comes from.) The filibuster was used, as you said, during the ‘50s and ‘60s to block civil rights legislation. And now Sinema and Manchin holding out on reform is slowing down the passage of the For the People Act, which would expand voting rights, stop voters from being purged from the roles, and mandate that independent commissions handle congressional redistricting. And Sinema also co-sponsored this bill when she was in the House [of Representatives].
Cauterucci: And now she is saying, “Because I’m so committed to bipartisanship… I’m more committed to bipartisanship—or the myth of bipartisanship—than I am to passing this legislation that I co-sponsored.”
Craven: Yes. I think that’s a good read of it.
Cauterucci: It’s interesting to me that the set of bills that she is holding up by supporting the filibuster or refusing to consider filibuster reform includes a voting rights bill named for John Lewis. Because in 2015, at the start of that Congress, as there is at the start of any Congress, there’s an election to determine who will lead each party. At the time, almost every Democrat voted for Nancy Pelosi. Not Kyrsten Sinema. She said she wanted to elect John Lewis to lead the party. And she said, “He’s my hero.” Well, the fact that she calls him a hero, publicly embraces him as a civil rights icon, and now is working against the substance of what he stood for is, to me, peak toxic white lady energy.
Craven: And that’s one of the bigger issues with politics is that so much of it can become performative and can become about how individual politicians feel. And in certain situations like this one, you have one or two individuals holding up legislation that could fundamentally change lives for broader swaps of America. It’s just really annoying. It’s really frustrating to see that a small number of people can really hold up massive changes in life for millions of people.
Cauterucci: I’m trying to understand how somebody could work alongside [Republicans] and watch them work against something as fundamental to democracy as voting rights, or something like the commission to investigate January 6. These aren’t a group of people who are making reasonable and good faith arguments about a policy that all manner of people can have fine positions on. We’re talking about really bread-and-butter issues for the future of the country as we know it, and fairness in politics and elections.
So, when she talks about bipartisanship, I don’t think she’s naive. I think she knows exactly who these people are, but she loves the idea of herself as somebody who can please both sides. She knows that that image has been essential to her political success. I think “bipartisanship” can be best read as an electioneering tactic, and sort of a campaign talking point, and not as an actual philosophy of lawmaking.