On March 5, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema caused an uproar with her vote against the inclusion of the $15 minimum wage increase in the Covid relief bill. Her exaggerated thumbs down enraged many, who saw the demonstration as inappropriately “gleeful” when denying a living wage to 839,000 Arizonans and millions of Americans whose lives could’ve been improved with the provision.
Sinema argued that her vote wasn’t about wages, but about Senate procedure. According to Sinema, a higher minimum wage didn’t belong in the Covid relief bill. Instead, she says, the Senate should tackle it through a separate, standalone bill. But this is not the whole story.
The truth is, the only reason Democrats were attempting to include the wage increase through the Covid bill is because of Sinema herself. Sinema is one of two Senators standing vocally in the way of eliminating the filibuster, an arcane procedural rule that allows a minority of Senators to block major legislation from ever being voted on.
As the makeup of the Senate currently stands, this means that Republicans have veto power over most Democratic priorities, despite a Democratic majority in Washington. As long as the filibuster remains in place, there is simply no chance of passing a higher minimum wage. Because the Covid relief bill went through the budget reconciliation process, an obscure Senate maneuver that allows some budget-related bills to pass with just 51 votes, the Covid bill was one of the only opportunities for Democrats to pass the $15 minimum wage increase that President Biden promised voters during the 2020 campaign.
The defense behind Sinema’s position, both on the wage increase and on the filibuster, is that Sinema knows her constituents better than anyone, and that what they want from her is bipartisanship, which she believes the filibuster protects. The underlying assumption is that to win in Arizona statewide, Democrats have to work closely with Republicans, even if it means abandoning the chance to pass popular, common-sense policies.
While this may have been true several years ago when Sinema was first coming into power, in 2021, times have changed. We are now a full year into the Covid crisis and in a distinctly different political landscape–what Arizona voters really want to see is results.
New polling conducted by Data for Progress of likely Arizona voters found that 62% of voters support the $15 minimum wage increase, and 61% think that passing major legislation is more important than the filibuster. For a state where Democrats make up only 32% of registered voters, these numbers are significant, demonstrating that progressive policies are actually popular in Arizona, and the filibuster less so.
The data reflects that Sinema has made the wrong analysis with her continued prioritization of the filibuster over delivering results. Arizona families are struggling to pay bills and put food on the table. They simply do not care about procedure when it comes to passing major legislation that will improve their lives, like raising wages.
Of course, Sinema argues that she is simply protecting the minority and that respecting their opinions will result in better common-sense legislation. This sounds pleasant, but relies on the assumption that Republicans are open to negotiation. The Covid bill that passed received not a single Republican vote at a time of such widespread suffering. It is clear that Republicans have no interest in good faith negotiations with Democrats.
Will Sinema really let the ideal of so-called “bipartisanship” prevent her from doing anything to pass the popular legislation that Arizona voters support, like the raising the wage? So far, the answer seems to be yes. But there is still time for Sinema to come out strong in favor of the policies that are popular across Arizona, but that may not be “bipartisan” in the Senate.
If Sinema wants to keep her reputation of legislating in line with Arizonans (and her job), she should start to actually do that by eliminating the filibuster and getting to work to raise wages, pass democracy reform, and more.
Abigail Jackson is communications coordinator for Progress Arizona.