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Image: Kyrsten Sinema
Newly-elected U.S. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., declares victory over Republican challenger U.S. Rep. Martha McSally in Scottsdale, Ariz on Nov. 12, 2018.Rick Scuteri / AP

On Senate dysfunction, Arizona's Sinema makes a badly flawed pitch

What happens when Republican senators are asked to "fix" their behavior, and they respond, "No"?


On Friday morning, Senate Democrats tried to advance a bipartisan proposal for an independent Jan. 6 commission. It failed: Senate Republicans launched their first successful filibuster of 2021, despite the fact that Democrats had already made concessions to give GOP lawmakers what they said they wanted.

The bill needed 60 votes, but it ended up with 54 -- a majority, to be sure, but short of the supermajority that's become common in our modern, dysfunctional Senate. The total would've been a little higher, but some supporters didn't participate in the vote. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), for example, said she backed the bipartisan proposal, but the Arizonan didn't explain why she wasn't on Capitol Hill when the measure reached the floor.

Her vote wouldn't have changed the outcome, but there was no shortage of questions about her whereabouts. Asked about the absence, Sinema told reporters in Tucson yesterday, "I had a personal family matter."

Whether that satisfies the senator's detractors or not, the Arizona Republic also reported on the Democratic lawmaker's other notable comments from yesterday's appearance:

On Tuesday, Sinema once again doubled down on her support for the filibuster, saying she would not budge on the issue.... In Tucson, Sinema reiterated her position that the filibuster is a tool that "protects the democracy of our nation" and is meant to create comity and encourage senators from both parties to work together.

It's important to understand the degree to which this is the opposite of the truth. The routinization of Senate abuses, abandoning the institution's majority-rule tradition and founding, has undermined our democracy, not protected it. (An MSNBC column from historian Kevin M. Kruse last week fleshed this out in more detail.)

Indeed, Friday's developments, which Sinema missed, helped discredit the same idea the senator espoused four days later. Without the filibuster, the bipartisan proposal for a Jan. 6 commission would've passed. With the filibuster, senators from both parties worked together, made concessions, forged a compromise, and Republicans killed the bill anyway.

The local report added:

"To those who say that we must make a choice between the filibuster and 'X,' I say, this is a false choice," she said. "The reality is that when you have a system that is not working effectively — and I would think that most would agree that the Senate is not a particularly well-oiled machine, right? The way to fix that is to fix your behavior, not to eliminate the rules or change the rules, but to change the behavior," Sinema added.

The Arizona Democrat made similar comments a few months ago. I found them baffling at the time, and their repetition hasn't helped bring any added clarity.

Circling back to our earlier coverage, it's certainly encouraging to see the senator acknowledge concerns that the Senate is "not working effectively." After all, the status quo is awfully tough to defend.

But by all appearances, it's the abuse of the rules that has turned the chamber into such a mess. Restoring the Senate to a majority-rule institution -- the way it operated for generations before the routinization of abuses -- would allow it to start functioning again, but that's a change Sinema will not consider.

The Arizonan's solution has some superficial appeal: if senators abusing the rules would simply "fix" their behavior, the institution would start functioning again as a healthy and productive governing body.

While I can appreciate the appeal of such a wish -- I'd be delighted if Senate Republicans behaved more responsibly -- there's an unavoidable follow-up question: what happens when senators decide they don't want to "fix" their behavior? Or more to the point, what happens when Sinema encourages her GOP colleagues to be more responsible, and they respond, "No"?

What if Americans elect a Democratic House, Democratic Senate, and Democratic White House, expecting elected officials to deliver on a Democratic agenda, and Republicans stand in the way of constructive policymaking? What if GOP senators are asked to "change their behavior," and they respond, "No"?

Sinema appears to believe that, at that point, the nation should simply tolerate a broken Senate and accept the consequences. A more sensible alternative is allowing the chamber to function as it was designed to function, curtailing the abuses, and preventing indefinite dysfunction.

This shouldn't be a tough call.

Update: Fleshing out a paraphrased quote, Sinema also said yesterday that the filibuster "was created as a tool to bring together members of different parties to find compromise." That is just absolutely, spectacularly, and demonstrably untrue. I'm hard pressed to explain why a sitting senator would say something this wrong, out loud and in public, about a key element of the institution in which she serves.