Earlier this week, in a crowded coffee shop in the bowels of the Capitol, a Senate staffer explained to me what “the real issue” was for the Democrats over the following few days. It was “how to keep reading from the same sheet of music without the music,” he said. “So much is known, and so much is unknown, all at the same time.” This was a reference mainly to Kyrsten Sinema, the senior senator from Arizona, who has become the Party’s most vexing known unknown. The Democrats were trying to bring a sweeping reconciliation bill to a vote before the August recess, but they needed all fifty of their members to support the new proposal. The recess was supposed to begin on Friday, and by Tuesday Sinema still hadn’t said a word. With no real Democratic majority in the Senate, anyone had the potential to be a live wire, but her silence carried an ominously credible charge. “Sinema could do anything right now,” a senior staffer told me, on Tuesday. “No one knows what’s happening.”
Last week, a breakthrough deal between Joe Manchin and Chuck Schumer, the Majority Leader, blindsided every other member of the Democratic caucus, including Sinema. Just a few days earlier, Manchin had killed the Democrats’ climate-and-tax bill for the second time, setting off Hill protests and general despondency within the Party. “Ten days ago, we were at the bottom of the deepest well that you could imagine,” Senator Michael Bennet, of Colorado, told me. “I have never been more surprised on the upside than when Joe Manchin came back to this deal.”
The terms—although less expansive than what most of the Party, including President Joe Biden, might have hoped for—are unprecedented. The Inflation Reduction Act would cut the cost of prescription drugs, expand health-care subsidies for millions of Americans, raise taxes on large corporations, and finance the biggest set of tax incentives for green energy ever. One analysis suggested that, by the end of the decade, the bill would reduce yearly emissions by forty-four per cent, and would more than double the rate at which the U.S. economy could decarbonize. Al Gore called the deal “the single largest investment in climate solutions and environmental justice in U.S. history. Decades of tireless work by climate advocates across the country led to this moment.”
Many of the bill’s initiatives had come up in previous rounds of negotiations, and Sinema had supported them. But Manchin and Schumer’s agreement, which was brokered in secret, included a few tax provisions that Sinema was known to oppose. For most of the week, under a steady barrage from reporters, the Democrats projected a shaky but unified front while they waited for her to make a pronouncement.
The architecture and tradition of the Senate—–the labyrinthine halls, the frequent votes—–make its members uncommonly accessible to the credentialed press. A small train system, which vaguely resembles an amusement-park ride, ferries senators from their offices into the Capitol; at one point, as her peers disembarked and reporters converged on them, Elizabeth Warren stood by taking questions. She touted the bill’s fifteen-per-cent tax on corporations. “We’re doing it in a way that has never been done before,” she said. “When this bill passes, it’s a way of saying to those corporations, ‘No more!’ ” Then she strode off. Manchin emerged from an elevator, trailed by two aides, who waved off questions. “We’re doing a gaggle,” one of them said flatly. The three took a train to another building, where a full press scrum was assembled and waiting. Manchin, wearing a boxy gray suit and purple tie, took questions with the benighted placidity of a man who knew he was still the hero of the news cycle. He parried two or three questions about Sinema, responded studiously to another about coal, and had already started walking off triumphantly when a reporter shouted something about Republican claims that he’d betrayed them. “They’re still my friends,” he called back, over his shoulder. “I love them all!”
Every Democrat was sacrificing something in order to keep the reconciliation bill alive, which was one reason Sinema’s intrigue was so galling. She was holding out for a policy change that many Republicans wouldn’t have bothered to fight for: the preservation of a loophole on carried interest that allows private-equity and hedge-fund managers to skimp on paying taxes. Bernie Sanders was giving up the “F.D.R.-ness” of the package, as one progressive adviser put it. Robert Menendez wasn’t getting a provision he wanted on state and local tax (SALT) deductions. A larger group, including Senator Jeanne Shaheen, of New Hampshire, lamented that the expansion of a child tax credit hadn’t made it in. “It’s important for us to recognize just how big of a deal this is,” Chris Coons, of Delaware, told me. “Every member of the caucus really had something in this deal that they’re not getting.” For him, it was a civilian climate corps, an issue he’s pushed for years. “Every senator has some story like that,” he said.
Then there were the provisions that Democrats accepted for the sake of Manchin, who has close ties to the oil and gas industry. The government would auction off more public lands for oil drilling, for instance, and the Democratic leadership promised to expedite energy-infrastructure permits in West Virginia, his home state. A caucus meeting on Tuesday had turned into a “Larry Summers love-fest,” an attendee told me. One senator mused that the former Treasury Secretary—who helped coax Manchin back to the bargaining table, with reassurances about correcting inflation—should be put on a Forever stamp.
Even with its compromises, the Inflation Reduction Act is monumental by any standard. “This has been a groundbreaking summer,” Chris Murphy, of Connecticut, who recently brokered a bipartisan deal on guns, told me. “Three entrenched industries—the gun industry, pharmaceutical industry, and the oil industry—have all had a chunk of hide taken out of them in a way that they probably didn’t expect in a fifty-fifty Senate.”
For all the obvious perils of maintaining a slim majority, congressional Democrats have been passing a growing list of major bills. In addition to the American Rescue Plan and the infrastructure bills, which were signed into law last year, the Senate recently passed the CHIPS Act, which funds domestic semiconductor development. “We’ve always just moved on to the next thing,” Senator Sherrod Brown, of Ohio, said, of the Party’s recent string of successes. I bumped into Brown outside the Capitol on Tuesday night, at a press conference to celebrate the passage of the PACT Act, which has restored health benefits to veterans who’d been exposed to toxic burn pits in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. “It shows the public who is on their side,” Brown said. “It’s Democrats and progressives consistently on the side of the public interest—on the side of gun safety, for veterans, for jobs and manufacturing.” Bennet, of Colorado, who entered the Senate in 2009, told me, “This might be the most productive ten days that I’ve seen in thirteen years being here.”
By late Wednesday, there were signs of inevitable strain. Sinema had taken a meeting with the Arizona Chamber of Commerce to discuss the tax provisions of the reconciliation bill. “Is this written in a way that’s bad?” she asked them, according to a CNN report. A few hours later, Bernie Sanders gave a fiery floor speech bemoaning the “extreme” modesty of the deal and vowing to file amendments to improve it. Party leadership worried that a welter of additional amendments might push Manchin away. One senator described them to me as an “act of self-flagellation,” and another progressive senior staffer, who largely agreed with Sanders’s sentiments, said, “We should take what we can get now. I don’t think anyone really thinks Bernie is going to tank this thing.”
One way to parse the situation was to play it out like a game of Clue. As a senior aide put it to me, “Who could still kill the bill?” Would it be Sinema, with the carried-interest tax loophole, far from the Senate floor? Menendez had publicly made peace with the SALT provision, but he was threatening to walk away if any anti-immigration amendments were added at the last minute; Alex Padilla, of California, had signalled the same.
Even Sinema was bracing for another variable, which is arcane to the wider public yet all-consuming in the halls of the Senate: a nonbinding custom called the Byrd rule, administered by an unelected official known as the parliamentarian. Any vote involving a simple majority would require the approval of the current parliamentarian, Elizabeth MacDonough, who insures that each provision of the bill in question has a “budgetary element.” The process by which MacDonough scrutinizes legislation is called the “Byrd Bath,” and both parties spent the week making arguments to her—Democrats in favor of their provisions, Republicans against. No one could say when she might rule, but her decision had the potential to lop off key components of the agreement.
At the end of the reconciliation process, the Senate holds a marathon voting session called the “vote-o-rama,” in which members of either party can spontaneously introduce new amendments while the parliamentarian referees. (“The parliamentarian Byrd Baths in real time during the vote-o-rama,” a senior aide said.) The premise, in essence, is for the losing party to take the opportunity to embarrass the other side. In this case, the Republicans will likely introduce amendments on issues of vulnerability to Democrats up for reëlection: immigration, policing, crime. If the Democrats can remain unified, the exercise will be painful but survivable, which once again raised the spectre of Sinema. Her inscrutability was getting to the Republicans, too. Manu Raju, the chief congressional correspondent at CNN, asked her about the bill on Thursday, as she stepped onto a Senate elevator. She didn’t reply, but a Republican senator standing nearby approached Raju and asked, “What did she say?”
Around three o’clock on Thursday afternoon, Sinema and Manchin were spotted together on the floor of the Senate. The upper gallery is open to the press, and a group of reporters watched like intent sports fans, craning their necks and adjusting their positions for clearer sight lines of the two Democrats. Sinema wore an orange dress and white floral shoes. An Arizona lawyer who had once served as her campaign attorney was up for a district-court judgeship, and Sinema was whipping up votes for her confirmation. Her place at the center of the reconciliation fight gave her the extra influence she needed to secure more Republican backing. A few senators who’d opposed the nominee came back to change their votes, eager to win her favor. She hugged Mitt Romney, then chatted cheerfully with Todd Young, from Indiana. Sitting next to Manchin, she briefly pulled away and looked across the chamber. “Rick, Rick!” she called out to Rick Scott, the Florida Republican. At one point, Ted Cruz skittered past to prepare for a floor speech about the rise of communism in Latin America. “Thanks, Ted,” Sinema said. (He didn’t support the nominee, so who could even say what this was about?) Through it all, for about fifteen minutes, she and Manchin huddled close and talked. When the final vote was announced on the district-court judgeship, it was 67–29 in favor of confirmation. Sinema clapped and beamed.
That night, around nine o’clock, Sinema’s office issued a terse press release. “We have agreed to remove the carried interest tax provision,” it read. The grammar was fittingly ambiguous. Presumably it was a reference to an agreement with Schumer and Manchin, but one couldn’t help thinking about everyone else she’d strung along, down to the Arizona Chamber of Commerce. In any case, she supplied the magic words: “Subject to the Parliamentarian’s review, I’ll move forward.”
Schumer had already announced that the Senate would reconvene on Saturday, while the parliamentarian continued to hear more arguments. By Friday morning, the Republicans, who had been unusually irrelevant for the past week, came roaring back into the frame. The vote-o-rama, Lindsey Graham said, “will be hell.” John Thune, the G.O.P.’s No. 2 in the Senate, vowed a series of “hard votes” that would likely spill into Sunday. On the Democratic side, Schumer’s office was arranging calls with different members of the caucus to urge discipline. The agreement was to vote against any amendments, but there would be exceptions. Some Democrats, a staffer acknowledged, might still have to cast certain votes to protect themselves. ♦