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Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) at the Capitol

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) walks through the halls of the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, May 26, 2021. (Photo: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc. via Getty Images)

'It's Sickening': Sinema Draws Progressive Ire for Obstructing Biden Agenda

"We obviously didn't envision having Republicans as part of our party," said Rep. Ilhan Omar.

Jake Johnson

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema is not the only corporate-backed Democrat standing in the way of the party's potentially historic and broadly popular budget reconciliation package.

But the Arizona senator's refusal to explain her specific objections to the proposal and offer alternatives has sparked growing anger among progressive lawmakers, who say that Sinema is—in the words of Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.)—"holding up the will of the entire Democratic Party."

"Every single person in your district deserves your focus and your representation." —Rep. Cori Bush

"The president keeps begging her, 'Tell us what you want. Put a proposal forward,'" Khanna said in a CNN appearance Tuesday night. "How do you compromise when Sinema is not saying anything?"

Earlier Tuesday, Sinema—who frequently says she won't negotiate through the press—met with President Joe Biden at the White House to discuss her position on the reconciliation package, which is known as the Build Back Better Act.

But even during the closed-door meeting with Biden, Sinema refused to clarify why she opposes the popular measure, according to Politico. Previous reporting has suggested that Sinema—who's received hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign cash from the pharmaceutical industry—opposes Democrats' drug price reforms and proposed tax hikes on the rich and large corporations, but she hasn't said so publicly.

"Sinema made clear she's still not on board with the party's $3.5 trillion social spending plan and is hesitant to engage on some specifics until the bipartisan infrastructure package passes the House," Politico reported Tuesday, citing an unnamed person who spoke with the Arizona senator.

On the same day as her meeting with the president, Sinema held a fundraiser with several corporate groups that are aggressively lobbying against the reconciliation package, including the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors. The New York Times reported that lobbyists were invited "to an undisclosed location on Tuesday afternoon for 45 minutes to write checks for between $1,000 and $5,800, payable to Sinema for Arizona."

"It's sickening," Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.) told NBC's Mehdi Hasan, referring to Sinema's prioritization of big donors' interests over the needs of her constituents, some of whom are now working on an effort to primary the Arizona senator in 2024.

"Every single person in your district deserves your focus and your representation," Bush said Tuesday night, directing her comments at Sinema. "They deserve for you to pay attention to them and put them first... Serve the public, humanity, first."

The intransigence of Sinema and a handful of other corporate Democrats in the House and Senate—including Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.)—is threatening to grind the entire reconciliation process to a halt, endangering the majority party's hopes of approving major investments in green energy, child care, Medicare expansion, and other priorities.

"They need to tell us what they don't agree with. And we need to actually be able to negotiate."
—Rep. Pramila Jayapal

In an attempt to spur progress on the reconciliation package, House progressives are promising to vote down a Senate-passed bipartisan infrastructure bill—authored in part by Sinema and Manchin—until both chambers of Congress approve the Build Back Better Act.

Progressives have said for months that while they want to pass both the reconciliation package and the bipartisan bill, they fear that passing the latter measure first would free Sinema, Manchin, and possibly other conservative Democrats to vote against the Build Back Better Act.

Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), the whip for the 96-member Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC), told CNN earlier this week that she wants Sinema and Manchin to "make their demands clear so that we can engage with that."

"It is saddening to see them use Republican talking points. We obviously didn't envision having Republicans as part of our party," Omar added. "I hope that they will understand that Democrats need to be united behind the president's agenda and we need to have urgent conversations on how to get this agenda done."

Speaking to Axios on Tuesday, Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.)—the chair of the CPC—expressed a similar sentiment.

"If they don't tell us what they want to do, which was the president's message, and if they don't actually negotiate on the entire bill, then we're not going to get to close," Jayapal said.

Asked Tuesday whether she's starting to get frustrated with fellow senators Manchin and Sinema, Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) responded, "Just a tad."

In a column on Wednesday, the Washington Post's Greg Sargent argued that between the bipartisan bill and the Build Back Better Act, the reconciliation package "is the one with the truly transformative policies when it comes to securing a decarbonized future and comprehensively rebalancing our political economy after it has been skewed to channel wealth, income, and rents to the top for decades."

"In that context, the infrastructure bill is essentially bipartisan theater, the opening act for the main event," Sargent wrote. "By arbitrarily insisting that this must pass before any agreement is made on the heart of the Biden and Democratic Party agenda, Sinema reveals herself as a leading threat to it."

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