WASHINGTON — Just like the original Sphinx, the Phoenix Sphinx is blocking the way until those who would move ahead solve her riddle:
What does Kyrsten Sinema want? And why doesn’t she stick around to explain it?
Somehow, we have gotten ourselves in a perverse situation where Sinema and Joe Manchin rule the world, and it’s confounding that these two people have this much sway. As Hemingway wondered in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” what are those leopards doing at this altitude?
Sinema and Manchin are now directing what Joe Biden gets to do and deciding how his presidency will be defined. Some Democrats even worry that the recalcitrant pair could be helping Donald Trump vault back into the White House.
The duo has created such havoc on the Hill — with the fate of the whole country riding on what mood they’re in — that congressional reporters have come up with Bennifer-style nicknames for them, including Manchinema and Sinemanch.
Democrats were irritated at Sinema — again — on Friday. Even as Biden traipsed up to Capitol Hill to try to rescue his F.D.R. dreams, Sinema flew back to Phoenix in the middle of nail-biting negotiations on the scope of Biden’s social policy bill.
Her spokesman said that she had a doctor’s appointment for a foot injury, but The Times reported that she was also slated to play footsie with donors at her political action committee’s dinner at a fancy resort.
The Times’s Jonathan Weisman got hold of an invitation to another fund-raiser for Sinema this past week with five business lobbying groups, many of which are fighting against the social policy bill.
“People who want to think they can understand her or get to her, let me tell you, you can’t,” one politico in her circle told me. “It doesn’t work that way with her. She doesn’t think in a linear process, like ‘OK, will this impact my re-election?’ She just beats her own drum. When she leaves in the middle of something and says, ‘I got stuff to do,’ it’s because she has plans. Sometimes, she’s just more interested in training for an Ironman. More power to her, man. It’s like watching a movie.”
The Arizona senator’s name is pronounced “cinema,” and it is apt because she sweeps — and sometimes, when the triathlete has a sports injury, limps — through the Senate like a silent film star.
“The Greta Garbo of Congress,” as one top Democrat called her.
Sinema rarely gives interviews and shuns the scrum of reporters at the Capitol. But she is not shy about drawing the spotlight, whether she is swathed in fur stoles, bedecked in pink, purple and mint-colored wigs, bedazzled in glittering stilettos. It is hard to believe that the Senate had a nutty sexist ban on sleeveless outfits on the floor. But the mandarins quit worrying about it for members once their colleague blithely turned the hallowed marble halls into an iconoclastic catwalk.
Sinema’s more conservative — and monochromatic — colleagues were agog at her stylings when she first ascended to the Senate — a moment when she was celebrated as the first openly bisexual senator. And they were appalled this past year when her fashion statements included presiding over the Senate in a pink sweater reading “Dangerous Creature” and when she put a picture on Instagram, following her defiant thumbs down on a $15 minimum wage, sporting a hot pink newsboy cap, matching oversized glasses and a ring that expressed the sentiment “Kiss off,” but in a more vulgar way. (Remember that this is a town so strait-laced, it was a sartorial scandal when President Barack Obama donned a tan suit.)
Sinema enjoys poking the bear, especially the more righteous wing of her party, but her allies cry sexism in the way she is treated by Democrats, compared with Manchin.
“I don’t think that in her mind, when she dyes the front of her hair purple or whatever she does, she’s trying to get press attention,” one told me. “Frankly, it’s just an expression of who she is.”
While progressives may disdain Joe “I’ve Never Been A Liberal” Manchin, they understand that he has a record as a conservative Democrat; Sinema is a puzzle to them.
What has caused the former social worker and Green Party champion who grew up in a gas station, a left-winger who supported Ralph Nader for president, to shift from progressive stances to more conservative ones? Is she unmoored in her politics, simply being opportunistic? What is the principle that is leading her to obstruct the party of her own president, who really needs a win right now?
“She doesn’t do interviews, she doesn’t answer questions, she speaks in vagaries, she doesn’t explain the core reason she’s opposed,” one member of the progressive crew on the Hill told me. “It’s hard to look at her actions and not conclude that the donations are part of the story. If she’s here to fight for corporate power and lower taxes for the wealthy and get more money for pharma executives, be on the level and say it.”
One thing is clear, though. When Americans are hurting and everything is on the line, behaving like a sphinx is riddlesome — and disquieting.