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The Odds Of Kyrsten Sinema Striking An Infrastructure Deal With Republicans Are Slim

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Bipartisan negotiations between President Biden and West Virginia Republican Senator Shelley Moore Capito failed to reach a deal this week on an infrastructure package. On Capitol Hill, a new round of talks has begun. This time, they are being led by the Senate's second-most talked about moderate. That would be Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema.

NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis is here to take a little bit of a deeper look at what this senator is bringing to the table. Hey, Sue.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Hey there.

KELLY: All right. So what is - what's Sinema's role? What is her goal with this fresh round of infrastructure talks?

DAVIS: Well, she's leading the talks along with Republican Senator Rob Portman of Ohio. Sinema, like Manchin, has really tried to build these quiet friendships and relationships across the aisle. This is a smaller group of 10 senators. It's not a direct negotiation with the White House. It's more of an attempt to see if they can build some consensus from the center out. Sinema isn't talking about it, but one of the Republican senators in this group, Mitt Romney of Utah, told reporters just today that he believes they are close to a general agreement on the cost and scope of a deal, but that it's not locked in concrete yet.

KELLY: And I just called Sinema the second-most talked about moderate in the Senate because it does seem like she's always mentioned in the same breath as Joe Manchin of West Virginia. These are the key swing votes. But she doesn't get as much attention as Manchin. How come?

DAVIS: She is the senator - you know, she has sort of the biggest contrast with her outward persona and her politics. She's known for this flashy, attention-grabbing fashion. She wore purple wigs on the Senate floor during COVID when she couldn't get her hair done. Most recently, she posted a picture of herself on her Instagram account wearing a ring that said - and I have to sanitize this for public radio - F off after she took some heat for voting against a minimum wage hike.

KELLY: All right.

DAVIS: You know, you look at Manchin. He's a former governor. He loves to hold court with reporters. Sinema totally avoids the spotlight. She rarely gives interviews. But their political positioning in the Senate is essentially the same. There are other moderate senators, but these two have been the most defiant on protecting the 60-vote filibuster rules and for advocating for working with Republicans at all costs, even if it means angering the progressive left.

KELLY: I'm also thinking her politics have had quite an evolution. I mean, and Manchin has been a centrist Democrat pretty much his entire political life...

DAVIS: Yeah.

KELLY: ...At least based on his voting record. But does she talk about how her personal politics have shifted over the years?

DAVIS: She has. You know, she started out in politics working as an anti-war activist. She identified with the Green Party before winning her first race for a state House seat back in 2002. She's worked as a progressive organizer. She also has this compelling personal story. She's someone who experienced homelessness as a child. She also made history as the first openly bisexual senator. And as a result of all that, progressives have been hoping for more of an ally in the Senate. But Sinema, to be clear, has never campaigned for Congress as anything but a moderate in a swing state who can work with Republicans. Here she is at her 2012 debate for her House seat race that she ultimately won.

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KYRSTEN SINEMA: I'm the only candidate who's got a history of working across the aisle to solve problems. And I promise to do that same thing for you if you send me to Washington, D.C.

DAVIS: And when she was running for the Senate in 2018, she was asked a lot about this political evolution. And this is what she said at a debate.

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SINEMA: And over the years, I'm proud to say that I have taken the time to learn and grow and occasionally even change my opinion.

DAVIS: And when she won that race, in her victory speech she repeatedly name-checked the late Senator John McCain - she is serving in his seat - and that she said his example of independence would serve as her guide in the Senate.

KELLY: Well, and what are her chances for getting something done on infrastructure? President Biden couldn't cut a deal with Senate Republicans. How high are hopes running that Kyrsten Sinema can?

DAVIS: Well, as one former Senate Democratic aide, Jim Manley, tweeted today, he doesn't think there's a snowball's chance in hell she'll be able to cut a deal that Democrats can support. So clearly, the betting odds are not in her favor, though I've talked to a lot of aides who say they believe part of the strategy here is to give senators like Manchin and Sinema as much room as they can to try to find bipartisanship because if it fails, it will ultimately be easier to get their votes on any party-line alternatives.

KELLY: NPR's Susan Davis. Thank you, Sue.

SINEMA: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.