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Stiehm: Odd duck sings Senate swan song

By Jamie Stiehm - | Jan 26, 2022

Jamie Stiehm

WASHINGTON — Sen. Kyrsten Sinema was speaking on the Senate floor, so I rushed into the chamber, gobsmacked.

The Arizona Democrat’s voice was nothing special — pedestrian — but new to us regulars. She never spoke on the floor or to reporters. Her usual silence was a contrast to her bright, tight, shocking fashion sense.

Would Sinema surrender her resistance to voting rights for Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday? The senators listening were mostly Republicans. The other 49 in the Democratic caucus had an important date.

No. Washington has no Hollywood endings anymore, Mr. Smith. The Senate is bled dry of grand, cinematic characters.

I witnessed Sinema thrust a dagger in her own president, a scene straight out of Shakespeare. So much for voting rights.

We are divided, she witlessly noted, in the 50-50 Senate. The 60-vote filibuster bar was too sacred to change for fair voting legislation. The Senate should spend more time talking to each other. In a sop, she added that she supports voting rights.

Sinema’s speech inflamed Democrats, King’s family and civil rights leaders, who say our fragile democracy is at stake. One was Sen. Raphael Warnock of Georgia, the pastor at the Ebenezer Baptist Church, where King preached.

Warnock warned of Republican voter suppression laws rising up all over. He declared, “This is a defining moral moment.”

For a year now, much depended upon Sinema and Sen. Joe Manchin, the West Virginia Democrat, to support their caucus — and President Joe Biden’s agenda — on key votes.

Voting Wednesday, they sold out their president and party. The frustrating filibuster rule stayed intact. The delicate Senate balance tipped. (Note: the vice president breaks a tie.)

I was gobsmacked not just at Sinema’s speech, but also the strange timing, which could not be accidental. Biden was on his way to the Capitol to meet Democratic senators for a private lunch in the Russell Caucus room.

For a freshman senator to publicly snub a president of her party is a newfangled fashion, like the bare arms Sinema sports in winter.

Nothing like that had happened here: not to former Presidents Barack Obama, nor Bill Clinton, and certainly never to Lyndon Johnson, the president who signed major civil rights bills into law.

The “Master of the Senate,” Johnson ruled by direct personal action, inspiring fear, trembling and loyalty. Presidents need to win arguments.

Biden, a senator for the best 35 years of his life, still cherishes the institution. At lunch, he fondly told of dwelling in the land of Senate giants. Good old “Joe” was never one of them. Post-speech Sinema, 45, stared at her phone.

I remember a few: Sens. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and Robert Byrd, D-W.Va. Byrd later said filibustering the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was his deepest regret.

Somebody tell that to Manchin, who reveres the memory of Byrd. He’s a hail-fellow-well-met, playing insider to Sinema’s aloof outsider. At least Manchin engages, for what it’s worth, with senators and the press.

The ornate red room with high chandeliers was not the best place for Biden’s belief in the luck of the Irish. It’s where the Senate investigated the sinking of the Titanic.

It’s also the room where Biden presided over the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court confirmation hearings. How poorly he treated Anita Hill, the witness who came forward to tell of Thomas’s sexual harassment as her boss. The nation was shellshocked.

Presidential power is a mix of persuasion and perception. Try as hard as he did, Biden could not persuade Sinema and Manchin to join him and virtually all Democrats in Congress. Voting rights sailed through the House.

To be fair, Vice President Kamala Harris requested voting rights as her mission months ago. She did not get it done.

In Biden’s mind, a presidential “ask” packs enough power to keep him afloat his maiden year — like the maiden voyage of the Titanic — in choppy, icy and dark seas.

But Sinema and Manchin, who became senators after Biden left a dozen years ago, don’t share that perception. They meet the president on an equal plane, especially if his power is on the wane.

The Senate ain’t what it used to be in glory days. If Biden needed convincing, the odd duck delivered the swan song.

Jamie Stiehm may be reached at JamieStiehm.com.

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