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Sinema wants Democrats to spend less on Biden's economic agenda

Spreadsheets likely won't tell Sinema how many families will be harmed with each dollar cut.
Photo illustration: Kyrsten Sinema against a background of excel sheets.
Sen. Kyrsten Sinema's turn toward technocrat is just another way to justify arbitrary spending cuts.MSNBC / Getty Images

A new report from Axios that dropped late Monday revealed Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., has spreadsheets. And she’s preparing to use those spreadsheets to demand that Democrats spend less on Democratic economic policies during the one chance they’ll likely have in the next two years to advance Democratic economic policies.

She’s “armed with her own spreadsheets,” according to the article. She possesses an “accountant-like focus on the bottom line,” and “she’s updating her data to ensure she has accurate top- and bottom-line figures.” And that’s about the extent of the details provided to Axios from “people familiar with the matter.” The takeaway is clearly meant to be that the Arizona moderate is set to be a formidable challenge in passing the $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation package that’s being crafted this week in the Senate’s committees.

What’s more revealing, though, is what the article doesn’t mention: anything about what’s in those spreadsheets. There's nothing about how she’s making determinations about what should stay and what should go as Democrats craft the final package. There's nothing about what programs might be on the chopping block when whittling down the bill. The closest the article comes to the point that spreadsheets aren’t the same as legislation is the acknowledgment that Sinema and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., “aren’t necessarily on the same page on which programs — and which tax increases — they can stomach.”

That’s about par for the course in how Sinema has treated the negotiations around this package, where her demands for cuts are unmoored from concrete proposals. The Axios story is meant to showcase her granular focus on the details — but they’re the wrong details. Instead, we should understand this effort as plastering the veneer of technocracy onto her already shallow version of moderation, where aesthetics are more important than policy.

We should understand this effort as plastering the veneer of technocracy onto her already shallow version of moderation, where aesthetics are more important than policy.

That shiny, shallow moderation is also a throwback to the political eras that Sinema, 45, grew up with. It’s former President Bill Clinton’s obsession with making sure aid only goes to the right people mixed with the Obama administration’s belief in the power of numbers. Sinema’s likely show only one part of the picture, the total cost, but to keep that as the sole focus is to miss the point of what progressive Democrats are trying to do.

Is there an Excel formula that shows the number of Americans who will be hurt when the number in the spending column for each program is cut down? Is there a row for the amount of carbon emissions that will be reduced for each dollar spent on green initiatives? Is there a chart showing how forcing shorter lifespans for social safety net programs will affect families planning for the future? (I’ve asked Sinema’s office to provide details about just what’s in those binders she’s hauling to her meetings, but they did not respond prior to publication.)

Manchin, at least, has been willing to talk about what programs he might want cut. On NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday, he suggested adding new requirements to the child tax credit expansion that many of his fellow Democrats want to make permanent.

“Let’s make sure we’re getting it to the right people,” Manchin said. “There’s no work requirements whatsoever. There’s no education requirements. Don’t you think if you want to help the children, the people should make some effort?”

Now, do I agree with any of that? Absolutely not! Neither do most Democrats, who are pretty gung-ho on keeping the child tax credit expansion intact in the reconciliation bill. Senate Banking Committee Chair Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, told The New Republic there’s “almost zero chance” the amount of the credit will be reduced in the Senate. But Manchin being willing to state his position out loud and in detail is something I’ve yet to see from Sinema.

Sinema is trying to project seriousness on what is fundamentally an unserious project. In trying to protect her seat in 2024 when she faces her first re-election campaign, she’s gone all-in on trying to convince Arizona Republicans and independents that she’s on their side. But she’s still refusing to grapple with what being on their side means for the people behind her spreadsheets’ numbers.