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Sinema’s exit puts the spotlight on the Senate’s shrinking pool of dealmakers

Not long before independent Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona publicly announced she would not run for reelection, she and Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut had a talk.

For months, the two of them had worked tirelessly alongside Republican Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma to craft a bipartisan deal on immigration. It had been a grueling negotiation, one of the toughest deals of their careers to clinch. But after four months of closed-door haggling, the trio announced their deal. Within hours of its release, it was clear, the plan was not going to pass.

When Sinema told Murphy she planned to retire, Murphy says she laid out her rationale. The American public wasn’t looking for a moderate, bipartisan member who cut deals, she argued. That model wasn’t the future; it was the past. He told her point blank he thought she was wrong.

“I don’t buy Sinema’s exit memo,” Murphy said. “I love her to death, but she proved herself wrong. She makes the claim that compromise is dead, but she helped forge some of the biggest, toughest compromises.”

Sinema declined to comment further about her reasons why she is retiring, telling CNN she put out a statement.

But there is no denying that the middle is shrinking in the Senate. The long-lauded dealmakers have slowly lost reelection or headed for the exits on their own volition, some knowing there was no path for winning back home. Over the last decade, senators who once saw the institution as a place to make laws, are finding it hard to even get a vote on an amendment. Republicans are looking over their shoulder knowing what can happen if they find themselves at odds with former President Donald Trump. And in more than a dozen interviews with senators, many candidly admit there are few political upsides for trying to find consensus when it seems all the base demands anymore is purity.

“The base of each party wants individuals who will fight, but not individuals who will reach across the aisle to get things done,” Republican Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah said. “So if you are running a campaign and you are facing a primary, the last thing you want to say is you are going to work on a bipartisan basis. That is the kiss of death.”

This cycle alone, the Senate will lose three of its most influential swing votes. Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin announced in November, he’d retire instead of running for reelection in ruby red West Virginia, Sinema announced this week she was out of the race in Arizona, and Romney announced last fall. All three had defied their party on key votes. Manchin and Sinema had come out publicly against erasing the filibuster, facing backlash from Democrats. Romney voted twice to impeach Trump, the only Republican to do so.

“We got a lot of stuff done on a bipartisan basis,” Romney said. “That is really over. That is not going to keep happening.”

The risks, members warn, are high for finding compromise, the incentives for sitting in a room for hours and days trying to find the narrowest agreement not worth the effort and fight against each party’s rapid response machines.

“I’ve seen a shift towards basically really not wanting to do anything,” West Virginia Republican Sen. Shelley Moore Capito said. “If you can’t have everything, you don’t want anything.”

The slow burnout of the moderates

The erasure of the Senate’s dealmakers isn’t new. It’s happened slowly over time.

Last cycle alone saw the retirement of Ohio Republican Sen. Rob Portman, who was instrumental in cutting the infrastructure deal and the Respect for Marriage Act, which protected same-sex marriage. In his place, Ohio Republican Sen. J.D. Vance who has sparred with his own GOP leaders and maintained a tight relationship with Trump. Missouri Republican Sen. Roy Blunt, another GOP pragmatist, retired after the 2022 election, replaced by Sen. Eric Schmitt. And other top Republicans including veteran appropriator Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama and top Republican on the Intelligence Committee, Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, also stepped aside after the 2022 election. Before that, Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was replaced by Sen. Marsha Blackburn, another staunch conservative.

In this September 2022 photo, Sen. Rob Portman speaks on his phone as he walks through the Senate Subway during a vote in the US Capitol. - Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images
In this September 2022 photo, Sen. Rob Portman speaks on his phone as he walks through the Senate Subway during a vote in the US Capitol. - Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

“It’s sad. In the last few years we’ve lost Rob Portman, Bob Corker, Roy Blunt, Lamar Alexander,” lamented Sen. Tim Kaine, a Democrat from Virginia. “We’re losing some good dealmakers at the end of the 118th Congress.”

There is a chance that when Sinema departs, she could be replaced by Republican firebrand Kari Lake, who still believes the election – despite all the evidence to the contrary – was stolen.

“When people leave that are inclined to work across the aisle, it matters who they are replaced with,” said Sen. Mark Kelly, a Democrat from Arizona.

But senators who want to work to find consensus and who prioritize it say the job of dealmaker isn’t easy nor is it often rewarded.

“If you are used to being productive and making things happen, after about 10 years, saying that the nation’s not even addressing the biggest issues that the nation has to deal with, it can wear you down,” Corker said. “When I first came into the Senate, there were enough people who were willing to burn political capitol, to reach across the aisle to solve a problem that you really could affect legislation in a big way, but you need enough people to do that.”

The next generation

Members still in the Senate say they are confident that younger members can step up and fill the void. As Kaine put it: “none of us are indispensable.”

“It remains to be seen, but I am hoping that in fairly short order, we will see some additional members emerge who have grown weary of just giving speeches and holding press conferences and appearing on television, but actually want to move legislation,” said Sen. Todd Young, a Republican from Indiana.

Sen. Thom Tillis, who helped craft a bipartisan gun deal in 2022, said already younger members are already taking up the mantel.

“It’s always more challenging in a presidential cycle, but I expect if you and I are talking this time next year we’ll be talking about two or three bipartisan bills that we’ll work on to get done,” the North Carolina Republican told CNN.

Sen. Brian Schatz, a Democrat from Hawaii said the solution is fairly straightforward: “It means others have to step up.”

Sen. Mark Warner, Sen. Brian Schatz and Sen. Joe Manchin speak outside the Senate Chamber following passage in the House of a 45-day continuing resolution on September 30, 2023 in Washington, DC. - Nathan Howard/Getty Images
Sen. Mark Warner, Sen. Brian Schatz and Sen. Joe Manchin speak outside the Senate Chamber following passage in the House of a 45-day continuing resolution on September 30, 2023 in Washington, DC. - Nathan Howard/Getty Images

“I think it is irresponsible to simply lament the departure of members who know how to make a deal,” he said. “The responsibility of a member is to make a deal or learn how to make a deal and that’s what I am going to be focused on.”

But there is a growing possibility bipartisanship may not always be as essential in the Senate. Right now, almost all legislation requires 60 votes to pass because of the legislative tool known as the filibuster. But, with Sinema and Manchin – two members who fought to preserve the tool – retiring, there is a possibility that the Senate could slowly move to get rid of it entirely. The issue has already emerged as a key one in the Senate Republican leadership election where Sen. John Cornyn of Texas and Sen. John Thune of South Dakota have said they’d preserve the filibuster if they become leader.

But the lure of attention-driven decision-making, isn’t going away, filibuster or not. Staying in the lines that the party draws is attractive for new lawmakers who can easily use social media to get out their messages and fundraise off of party positions that get them reelected.

“It is really easy to get sucked into that life, and it is easy to convince yourself that you are doing a good job if you are getting a lot of cable news appearances and getting a lot of follows online. I think every senator would be lying to you if they said there wasn’t a seduction to that occasionally,” Murphy said. “A couple of years ago, I just looked around and decided that if this place wasn’t working, maybe the Senate wasn’t going to be here 50 years from now so I better start being more purposeful.”

In her announcement this week, Sinema charged “compromise is a dirty word” today in America, adding, “I believe in my approach, but it’s not what America wants right now.”

“She and I were greatly affected by what happened last month. It was hard to get that close to a deal on immigration and have it fall apart that quickly,” Murphy said. “I obviously understand where she is coming from. I watched that video, and I see the anger that we both have.”

Murphy added, “I think she is wrong.”

He pauses.

“I hope she is wrong.”

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