Kyrsten Sinema’s Party of One

Kyrsten Sinema’s Party of One

She got her way in the end. On Nov. 5, 2021, the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed in the House. Ten days later, Biden signed it into law. Sinema, meanwhile, continued to draw the ire of Democrats for opposing Build Back Better. In a rare interview with CNN, she refused to specify what it would take to change her mind, saying only, “I won’t support any legislation that increases burdens on Arizona or American businesses and reduces our ability to compete either globally or domestically.” The legislation lay dormant into the following year.

On May 24, 2022, a teenager armed with an AR-15-style rifle walked into Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, and massacred two teachers and 19 children. Sinema responded to the shooting with a tweet about being “horrified and heartbroken,” which was widely denounced as proof that she had no intention of responding with concrete action. A day later, Chris Murphy — who, after the shocking Sandy Hook school shooting a decade earlier in his state, emerged as the Democrats’ foremost advocate for gun reform — happened to read that Sinema had paused at an elevator in the Capitol to inform members of the news media that she would like to work with Republicans on the gun issue. The news initially struck Murphy as improbable: Sinema had effectively stopped talking to the Washington press.

Murphy texted her: “Are you serious?”

Sinema responded that she was. Within two hours, Murphy was sitting in her hideaway office in the basement of the Capitol. Later that day, Sinema walked onto the Senate floor and located the Republican leader, Mitch McConnell. “Who should I work with on guns?” she asked him.

She and McConnell had been friendly for some time, and she met frequently with him during the infrastructure deliberations. Later in 2022, she would go to his state, Kentucky, to speak at the University of Louisville’s McConnell Center, where she was praised by the minority leader as “the most effective first-term senator I’ve seen in my time in the Senate.” Now, responding to her question on the Senate floor, McConnell replied, “John Cornyn and Thom Tillis.” Sinema promptly texted them both. The next day, the two Republican senators and Sinema and Murphy were in her hideaway, devising a legislative framework. “There wasn’t a day when the four of us weren’t talking multiple times,” Tillis told me.

That June, Biden signed into law the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act. Against the wishes of the powerful National Rifle Association, an astonishing 14 Senate Republicans voted for the bill, including the minority leader; as Murphy would tell me, “We knew we couldn’t pass it without McConnell’s support, and Kyrsten was in ongoing conversations with him.” The bill did not address military-style rifles like the ones used by the Uvalde shooter or extend background checks to internet and gun-show sales, measures that were guaranteed to be blocked by a Republican filibuster. It did, however, provide enhanced penalties for straw purchases, add extra steps to background checks for purchasers who are 18 to 21 and close the so-called boyfriend loophole, which allowed abusive partners to own a gun even with an order of protection against them.

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