Aug 05, 2022
Sinema gives her nod, and influence, to Democrats big bill
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WASHINGTON (AP) — Sen. Joe Manchin sealed the deal reviving President Joe Biden’s big economic, health care and climate bill. But it was another Democratic senator, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, who intently, quietly and deliberately shaped the final product.
Democrats pushed ahead Friday on an estimated $730 billion package that in many ways reflects Sinema’s priorities and handiwork more than the other political figures who have played a key role in delivering on Biden’s signature domestic policy agenda.
It was Sinema early on who rejected Biden’s plan to raise the corporate tax rate from 21% to 28%, as she broke with party’s primary goal of reversing the Trump-era tax break Republicans gave to corporate America.
Sinema also scaled back her party’s long-running plan to allow Medicare to negotiate lower drug prices with the pharmaceutical companies as a way to reduce overall costs to the government and consumers. She limited which drugs can be negotiated.
Her insistence on climate change provisions forced the coal-state Manchin to stay at the table to accept some $369 billion in renewable energy investments and tax breaks. She also is tucking in more money to fight Western droughts.
And it was Sinema who in one final stroke gave her blessing to the deal by extracting an ultimate demand — she forced Democrats to drop plans to close a tax loophole that benefits wealthy hedge fund managers and high-income earners, long a party priority. Instead, the final bill will keep the tax rate at 20% instead of hiking it to the typical 37%.
“Kyrsten Sinema’s proven herself to be a very effective legislator,” said Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., who has negotiated extensively with his colleague over the past year, including on the tax loophole.
In a 50-50 Senate where every vote matters, the often inscrutable and politically undefinable Sinema puts hers to use in powerful ways. Her negotiating at the highest levels of power — she appears to have equal access to Biden, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and even Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell — has infuriated some, wowed others and left no doubt she is a powerful new political figure.
While other lawmakers bristle at the influence a single senator can wield in Congress, where each member represents thousands if not millions of voters, Sinema’s nod of approval late Thursday was the last hurdle Democrats needed to push the Inflation Reduction Act forward. A final round of grueling votes on the package is expected to begin this weekend.
“We had no choice,” Schumer told reporters Friday at the Capitol.
Getting what you want in Congress does not come without political costs, and Sinema is amassing a balance due.
Progressives are outraged at her behavior, which they view as beyond the norms of sausage-making during the legislative process and verging on an unsettling restacking of party priorities to a more centrist, if not conservative, lane.
Progressive Rep. Ruben Gallego is openly musing about challenging Sinema in the 2024 primary in Arizona, and an independent expenditure group, Change for Arizona 2024, says it will support grassroots organizations committed to defeating her in a Democratic primary.
“The new reconciliation bill will lower the cost of prescription drugs,” Gallego wrote on Twitter last weekend. “@SenatorSinema is holding it up to try to protect ultra rich hedge fund managers so they can pay a lower tax.”
In fact, on the left and the right, commentators lambasted her final act — saving the tax breaks for the wealthy. Some pointed to past legislative luminaries — the late Sen. Robert Byrd, for example, used his clout to leave his name on roads, buildings and civic institutions across the West Virginia hillsides. They scoff at Sinema establishing her legacy in such a way.
“Astonishing,” wrote conservative Hugh Hewitt on Twitter. “@SenatorSinema could have demanded anything she wanted — anything that spent money or changed taxes — and with that leverage for Arizona she choose … to protect the carry interest exemption for investors. … Not the border. Not the country. A tax break. Wow.”
Democratic former Clinton-era Labor Secretary Robert Reich wrote, “The ‘carried interest’ loophole for billionaire hedge-fund and private-equity partners is now out of the Inflation Reduction Act, courtesy of Kyrsten Sinema.
“She’s up in 2024. Primary her and get her out of the Senate.”
But Sinema has never cared much about what others say about her, from the time she set foot in the Senate, breaking the rules with her whimsical fashion choices and her willingness to reach across the aisle to Republicans — literally joining them at times in the private Senate GOP cloakroom.
The Arizona senator seeks to emulate the maverick career of John McCain, drawing on his farewell address for her maiden Senate speech, and trying to adopt his renegade style alongside her own — a comparison that draws some eyerolls for its reach and scope.
Still, in her short time in the Senate, Sinema has proven herself to be a serious study who understands intricacies of legislation and a hard-driving dealmaker who does not flinch. She has been instrumental in landmark legislation, including the bipartisan infrastructure bill Biden signed into law last summer.
“There’s not been a bipartisan group that she’s not been a part of,” Warner said.
In the end, the final package is slimmer than Biden first envisioned with his lofty Build Back Better initiative, but still a monumental undertaking and a bookend to a surprisingly productive if messy legislative session.
The bill would make health care gains for many Americans, capping pharmacy costs for seniors at $2,000 out of pocket and providing subsidies to help millions people who buy health insurance on the private market. It includes what the Biden administration calls the largest investment in climate change ever, with money for renewable energy and consumer rebates for new and used electric cars. It would mostly be paid for by higher corporate taxes, with some $300 billion going to deficit reductions.
On the climate provisions, a priority for Democrats, Sinema may have played a role in keeping the sweeping provisions in the bill, when Manchin was less inclined to do so.
Environmental leaders, who have been involved in talks on the bill since last year, said Sinema has helped shape the bill all along. She was especially helpful last year when she made it clear she supports the climate and energy provisions, and her commitment to climate issues has remained steadfast, environmentalists said.
She tacked on her own priority, money to help Western states dealing with droughts, in the final push.
Jamal Raad, executive director of Evergreen Action, an environmental group that has pushed for the climate bill, said: “Senator Sinema needed money for drought relief to help her constituents stave off the worst effects of climate change. If that’s what was needed to gain her support, then good on her.’’
At home in Arizona, business allies that have been crucial to Sinema’s efforts to build an independent image have cheered on her willingness to resist party pressure over the tax increases.
The Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the National Association of Manufacturers ran ads against the deal, though they didn’t target Sinema by name, and bent her ear in a phone call this week.
Associated Press writers Matthew Daly in Washington and J.J. Cooper in Phoenix contributed to this article.
Copyright © 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.
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The Inflation Reduction Act Was a Huge Win for Democrats. Will It Help Them In the Midterms?
US Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer speaks as US President Joe Biden listens during a signing ceremony for the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, DC on August 16, 2022.MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty ImagesFight disinformation: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter and follow the news that matters.
After more than a year of intra-party squabbles and GOP stonewalling, plus incessant hurdles—both procedural and political—it’s a miracle that the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) made it to President Joe Biden’s desk on Tuesday.
A drastically scaled back version of the Build Back Better (BBB) bill that was derailed in late 2021 by Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), the law is nevertheless a big Democratic victory. Among other things, it will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by approximately 40 percent over 10 years, lower prescription drug prices, impose a 15 percent corporate minimum tax on America’s largest companies, and provide the IRS with $80 billion in new funding to help it better target wealthy tax dodgers.
But few benefits of this package will be felt by voters immediately, which is one barrier in the way of Democrats selling the public on why they should remain in charge of the congressional agenda.“Democrats need to serve up the contrast: ‘Look, we’re working to get stuff done. Republicans are trying to stop things from getting done.'”
And that’s why the hard part for Democrats starts today. No, really. Passing the legislation was half the battle. Now Democrats must convey this major legislative victory to voters as they struggle to preserve their congressional majorities in the upcoming midterm elections.
If history is indicative, it will be an uphill climb.
“They’re holistically bad at messaging,” Lincoln Project co-founder and former Republican strategist Rick Wilson says of Democrats. “That doesn’t mean they’re bad all the time and everything. They just have a tough time bringing it all together into one package, and selling something that is more optimistic and prospective.”
Consider the $550 billion bipartisan infrastructure framework (BIF) Congress passed in November as one example. It marked the largest federal investment on roads, bridges, and public transit in decades, and it promised to create hundreds of thousands of jobs in the process.
Democrats have thus far failed to make clear to voters what BIF exactly is, and whether it even passed. Eight months after Biden signed the legislation, less than a quarter of voters were aware it was signed into law, according to a July poll by thinktank Third Way and Impact Research.
“Given that a large share believes the deal is still being worked on in Congress, it is clear that voters are confusing the BIF with BBB,” a Third Way memo about the survey says.
The lack of public awareness may also have something to do with the lack of immediate gratification that results from spending big on highways and other infrastructure. Few people pop a tire in a mammoth-sized pothole and think, “No biggie, maybe the 2021 infrastructure funds will fix this issue for the next guy.”
The IRA will face similar challenges on this front. The provisions that allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices, for instance, don’t start phasing in until 2026 and will only apply to 10 drugs in the first year before ramping up to 20 drugs in 2029. The 2022 midterms will be a distant memory by then, as will the 2024 presidential election for that matter.
Likewise, voters won’t feel air quality improve or temperatures drop the moment Biden closes his pen cap after signing the IRA, even though the bill includes roughly $370 billion for climate and energy needs—the largest-ever investment towards mitigating climate change.
“All climate things are a long runway, unfortunately,” Faiz Shakir, former campaign manager to Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2020 presidential bid, tells Mother Jones. Democrats “had to cut all the things that could have had an immediate and direct impact, like the child tax credit. But I get it, you let Joe Manchin write a bill and it’s what we could do.”
There are, however, strategies Democrats could take to turn their legislative successes into electoral ones, half a dozen political strategists and experts say.
The most obvious move is to start pointing out the highly popular policies that Republicans have tried to thwart, three strategists emphasize.
Fully 83 percent of voters support Medicare negotiating for lower drug prices, 61 percent say Congress should do more to fight climate change, and 62 percent back raising corporate taxes. Not a single Republican voted for the IRA, which does all three.
The IRA isn’t the only legislation giving Democrats fodder. More than three-fourths of Americans think contraceptives should be legal, according to Pew Research Center, but the vast majority of the House GOP voted against a bill to codify contraception access in July after the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade and handed control over abortion laws back to the states. Gay marriage polls show similar levels of support: 71 percent of Americans back the right, but just 22 percent of House Republicans voted to protect it this summer after Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas suggested in a concurring opinion to the majority abortion-rights decision that he thought the Supreme Court should reconsider whether gay marriage is a constitutional right.
Even the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure deal hardly lived up to its billing as bipartisan. Democrats ought to point that out, says Mike Lux, a political strategist who has served senior roles on six different presidential campaigns. “Ninety percent of House Republicans voted against it. A majority of Senate Republicans voted against it,” says Lux, “Democrats need to serve up the contrast: ‘Look, we’re working to get stuff done. Republicans are trying to stop things from getting done.'”
GOP obstructionism isn’t so much a trend these days as a political strategy. “There is a belief inside the Republican Party that ‘Oppositional Defiant Disorder’ is now a legitimate [mode of] governing. They’re gonna say no to everything. They’re gonna push back on everything,” says Wilson, who worked in Republican politics for three decades. “They would much rather like yell, scream and cause trouble than actually be responsible for getting something done.”
Republicans’ vote against expanding the reconciliation bill’s insulin price-capping provision to include privately insured patients is one of the most obvious examples of GOP obstruction.
More than 7 million US diabetics require daily insulin and roughly 14 percent of insulin users spend “catastrophic” levels of their income on insulin, according to a Yale study, meaning their insulin accounts for at least 40 percent of their income after deducting food and housing costs.
“I think we can kill the Republicans on the insulin thing,” argues Lux.
That would mean putting less energy towards beltway harmony and more towards enmity. Polling suggests that’s not such a crazy idea.
It’s true that 85 percent of Americans believe it’s important for legislation to have bipartisan support, according to a 2021 Morning Consult poll, but it’s also true that voters value the other party making efforts to reach across the aisle more so than they value compromise from their own party, according to a 2019 Pew Research Center poll.
Democrats “want to be shy about not creating a contrast and seeming too partisan. Forget that. The world is partisan,” says Kelly Dietrich, the CEO and founder of the National Democratic Training Committee, which offers online training for Democrats seeking office. Democrats are passing “bipartisan proposals that are incredibly popular across Republicans and Democrats. We need to be taking a victory lap and rubbing their nose in it.”
The gives Democrats easy opportunity to do so: Every GOP lawmaker just voted against a bill that will surely prevent some people from dying from treatable diseases, says Dr. Rob Davidson, the executive director of Committee to Protect Health Care, a group that advocates for policies that put patient care over profits.
In his day job as an emergency medicine physician in rural Michigan, Davidson says he sees patients rationing medication due to financial difficulties end up in the his emergency room on a weekly basis.
Lower prescription drug and insulin costs procured by the IRA will “save a certain number of people’s lives,” he says. “It’s incontrovertible. Nobody can say that’s not true.”
Whether the IRA can save Democrats’ congressional majorities is less straightforward. That will not so much depend on what Democrats got done—but if they can finally learn how to talk about it.