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Sinema and Jayapal: Unheralded Bookends of Divided Democrats

While Joe Manchin and the Squad grab the headlines, this unlikely pair is driving a final agreement on Dems’ social spending spree.

They share little in common except the (D) behind their names. And they are not yet household names like their star-studded or high-profile colleagues of similar mind who have been covered like a blanket by big media. That will soon change, however, as the Democrats’ plans for a $3.5 trillion social spending spree approach the witching hour.

One of these women comes from the Senate, the other from the House. One is a full-on progressive, the other an independent-minded gadfly. They hold polar opposite views of what message the Democratic Party should be sending with their “human infrastructure” plan, which would ideally throw the kitchen sink of European-style progressivism into a single budgetary act. One favors the full smorgasbord of socialism, the other some measure of restraint.

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Kyrsten Sinema
(Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

But what Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) and Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) share is an almost unique unwillingness to surrender their positions for the sake of party unity. Both have refused to budge from their (opposing) demands in the face of undoubtedly unrelenting pressure from Joe Biden, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), and the entire party establishment. Because of their intransigence – or courage, depending on your viewpoint – the Democrats are in a quandary over how to proceed with this 100% partisan exercise in taxing and spending as much as possible in one sitting.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) may be getting much of the attention for the limits he has single-handedly placed on the size of the Build Back Better boondoggle, but Sinema has been right by his side, at considerably more political cost. While West Virginia has become arguably the reddest state in the nation – 69% there voted for Trump – the state Sinema represents, Arizona, is a new frontier for Democrats, where Biden picked up a shocking win over Trump. So, while Manchin is clearly satisfying the desires of his constituency, Sinema’s stubborn opposition to out-of-control spending is a far more controversial position within a state that officially turned purple in the 2020 election.

New banner Memo - From the Desk of Senior Political Analyst Tim Donner 1And while Manchin has been applauded by conservatives and moderates for upholding at least a semblance of fiscal sanity, even he appears to already be caving, now hinting he has some flexibility on what he reiterated just last week was his topline figure of $1.5 trillion. He’s now indicating he could go up near $2 trillion, even though he not only made a show of his position in recent days, but wrote an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal denouncing the whole process and calling for a “strategic pause” in his party’s assault on taxpayers and the federal Treasury. Manchin rightly pointed to rising inflation and economic insecurity persistent enough to drop President Biden’s approval underwater on his handling of the economy. But the weight of the entire party establishment may well have forced Manchin to compromise.

Will Sinema similarly back down under the assault of progressives who have gone so far as to follow her into a public bathroom to demand she support the whole $3.5 trillion loaf – and then spiked the ball on social media? She has been something of a pioneer in her own right as the first openly bisexual woman to serve first in the U.S. House and then the Senate and, after progressive beginnings, becoming one of Arizona’s and then the nation’s most high-ranking conservative Democrats.

At the same time as Chuck Schumer in the upper chamber tries to persuade moderates Manchin and Sinema to bring their acceptable dollar figure up, Nancy Pelosi in the lower chamber attempts to do the opposite: convince her hard-core progressives to bring their dollar figure down. But while the four vaunted members of “the Squad” – Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), Ilhan Omar (D-MN), Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), and Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) – have, like their mirror image Manchin, received most of the attention for their refusal to compromise on the full $3.5 trillion, it is Rep. Jayapal who has done the heavy legislative lifting, serving as the driving force behind stalling the process – and no doubt infuriating Pelosi.

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Pramila Jayapal
(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

As the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and a groundbreaker herself as the first South Asian American woman in the House, Jayapal has in six years quietly distinguished herself as the most powerful progressive legislator in the lower chamber. And she has been the main roadblock to Pelosi gaining passage of the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill passed by the Senate. She is holding out her bloc of votes, which is sufficient to tank any bill given the Democrats’ paper-thin majority, refusing to provide the decisive tallies until the second, $3.5 trillion bill is passed by the Senate. It is a true taffy-pull.

In a time of tribal politics when it is often impossible to figure out which politicians are posturing and which are principled, which are just toeing the party line at all costs and which actually believe what they are saying, Sinema and Jayapal seem a breed apart. They are singularly focused and, most importantly, strong and independent enough to challenge the party leadership – and make it stick. In the end, it may well not be Joe Biden, Chuck Schumer, or Nancy Pelosi who effectively forge the final agreement in this battle royale over the budget, but this unlikely pair of history-making women who have, so far, proven invulnerable to the stiff winds of partisan pressure blowing directly on them from opposite directions.

~ Read more from Tim Donner.

Read More From Tim Donner

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