Sen. Kyrsten Sinema's border bill flopped. What does that mean for her political future?

U.S. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, I-Ariz., questions Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin testifying before a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing to examine the national security supplemental request, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Oct. 31, 2023.
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Sen. Kyrsten Sinema angrily denounced the swift demise of the bipartisan border security bill she helped negotiate, blaming partisanship — especially from Republicans — for neglecting the conditions in her home state.

“We produced a bill that finally, after decades of all talk and no action, secures the border and solves the border crisis. Our bill was ready for prime time,” Sinema, I-Ariz., said Wednesday on the Senate floor.

“But less than 24 hours after we released the bill, my Republican colleagues changed their minds. Turns out they want all talk and no action. It turns out border security is not actually a risk to our national security. It’s just a talking point for the election.”

It was a bitter disappointment to Sinema that seemed to display limits to her bipartisan negotiations and raises anew questions about her political future.

Sinema’s $118 billion bill would have included a new border shutdown authority and made asylum claims more difficult to sustain and would have processed them more quickly. The bill did little to address immigration policies more broadly and included substantial military aid to Ukraine and Israel for their ongoing wars, as well as funds for Taiwan, which is seeing heightened tensions with mainland China.

The bill drew only 49 votes in the Senate and could not overcome the 60-vote threshold required by the legislative filibuster Sinema has long supported. It left Sinema blaming her colleagues for yielding to the pull of politics over national needs.

“When we work together, we can solve problems,” she said at the close of her remarks. “We did that here, and you decided no. You decided you don’t even want to debate it. You don’t want to amend it. You don’t want to tackle the problem. Partisanship won. The Senate has failed Arizona. Shameful.”

Sinema worked closely with Sens. James Lankford, R-Okla., and Chris Murphy, D-Conn., on the measure, but their final product quickly collapsed.

Former President Donald Trump vaporized its prospects when he urged Republicans to deny President Joe Biden a legislative victory ahead of this year's election. House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., made clear the bill was dead in his chamber. By then, Senate Republicans saw little upside to supporting a bill headed nowhere.

In Phoenix, Republican Senate candidate Kari Lake, a former TV news anchor who is running for Sinema’s seat, hailed the bill’s failure. She said it didn’t include funding for a needed border wall and would have instead fueled war efforts abroad while ignoring the threat of fentanyl in America.

Lake called the bill “300 pages of pure garbage,” before tossing it in a waste basket placed near her podium.

“No money for a border wall to stop people from coming across; $90 billion to kill people overseas,” she said. “This is not an Arizona problem. This is happening in Utah, California, in Iowa, New Hampshire, in New York, in Florida. And it’s all coming through Arizona because the politicians in Washington, D.C., care more about funding a war than they do about solving the problems of the American people.”

Sinema's office pointed out that the bill included more than $670 million for border wall funding, although some Republicans called the amount insufficient.

Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., who also is challenging for Sinema’s seat, has said he would have voted for the bill if it proceeded in the House. He offered no public reaction to the bill’s defeat on Wednesday.

The bill’s abrupt failure and Sinema’s 11th-hour efforts to avert it with rare national media appearances also raised questions about her reelection plans. Sinema has sidestepped such questions since she quit the Democratic Party in December 2022 and she faces an April deadline to submit more than 42,000 signatures to qualify for the November ballot.

Steven S. Smith, a political science professor at Arizona State University who studies party politics in Congress, said Sinema emerges from the debate over border security with more appeal to centrists and moderate Republicans, but it’s unclear whether it is enough to assist her political fortunes.

“She’s received such great publicity that it certainly would be the basis for a claim that a middle-of-the-road senator who’s managed to bring the two sides together from time to time — not always successfully — but sometimes, should be reelected,” he said.

“She certainly has boosted her chances in the Senate race. Of course, she was so far behind that it’s not clear that anything like this could in the end make a difference.”

Sinema’s words on Wednesday seemed to acknowledge a limit to her effectiveness in policymaking when too few are willing to join her in striking a deal. Sinema played a central role in the $1.2 trillion national infrastructure law that drew bipartisan support. She also was a key negotiator in a law that brings more scrutiny to gun sales for young adults and provides potential funding for mental health needs.

But her latest bill seems to have ended like others over the past 20 years that sought to tackle elements of immigration and border security.

Sinema, who has joined Republicans on tours of the border conditions, urged those who rejected her bill to go elsewhere for what she views as a photo opportunity.

“I have a very clear message for anyone using the southern border for staged political events,” Sinema said. “Don’t come to Arizona. Take your political theater to Texas. Do not bring it to my state because in Arizona we’re serious. We don’t have time for your political games.”

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Kari Lake revels in border bill's defeat as Kyrsten Sinema blames GOP