Sens. Kyrsten Sinema and Martha McSally literally worked both sides of the aisle last week, greeting Republicans and Democrats as senators entered the House chamber for President Trump’s State of the Union.
Then they took their seats on opposite ends of the chamber. After Trump concluded, they exited through opposite doors.
The relationship between Sinema and McSally, who both entered the Senate last month, is unique to this Congress. Sinema narrowly defeated McSally in November to replace retiring Sen. Jeff Flake, and McSally secured a gubernatorial appointment to replace Sen. Jon Kyl after he resigned in December.
Now the two former House members are working collaboratively on parochial issues set to come before Congress, following in the rare path of other senators to serve with former campaign rivals as they navigate an increasingly polarized Washington after their own divisive 2018 campaign.
“It’ll be challenging in any event,” said former Sen. Ben Nelson, a Nebraska Democrat who overlapped for eight years in Congress with Chuck Hagel, his former Republican opponent. “You can’t do battle [without] saying things about one another that you have to live with later. But adults generally figure out how to make things work.”
Arizona's Senate race, decided by just 56,000 votes, was contentious. McSally called Sinema’s past antiwar activity “treason” at their only debate, and Sinema’s TV ads said McSally “doesn’t belong in the United States Senate.” While both women tout their moderate bona fides, they’ll land on opposite sides of many issues in the increasingly partisanSenate.
“That is a lot tougher than what Ben and I had,” Hagel said, noting that Nelson joined the Senate four years after Hagel defeated him, as opposed to being appointed only a month after the race, as McSally was.
McSally will appear on the ballot again in 2020 to finish the late Sen. John McCain’s term in a state that Trump won by 4 points. Sinema reportedly introduced to Washingtonians a potential Democratic challenger—Grant Woods, a former Republican attorney general who bowed out of contention Friday.
But the two freshman senators have found room for agreement. Their maiden speeches on the Senate floor last month, coming less than an hour apart, called for terminating the partial government shutdown. McSally and Sinema have already cosponsored five land-transfer bills included in a larger legislative package expected to pass the Senate this week.
"The campaign is over. Senator Sinema won,” McSally told Arizona Public Media last month. “I have been given the opportunity to be appointed. We are both now serving alongside each other on behalf of Arizona. And our approach is what's best for our state moving forward."
McSally conceded to Sinema less than a week after the narrow election, congratulating “Arizona’s first female senator after a hard-fought battle.” McSally texted Sinema within an hour of being appointed with hopes they could collaborate, according to a McSally aide. The political prerogative to work together is also apparent to Sinema, who campaigned as a moderate to become the first Democrat elected to the Senate from Arizona since 1988.
“I’ve seen [on] occasion where we’re flying back and they’re both sitting near each other on the airplane; everyone seems to be pleasant,” said Republican Rep. David Schweikert.
They both sit on the Banking, Housing, & Urban Affairs and Aging Committees, opening paths to cosponsor issue-specific legislation. And they separately addressed the American Israel Public Affairs Committee gathering in Phoenix over the weekend.
Both senators’ portfolios will also include drought-prevention policy. McSally as chairwoman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee’s Water and Power Subcommittee, a position Flake held, “will be leading the federal effort in Washington” to ratify a pact between seven Southwestern states governing the Colorado River, the Republican said in a statement. Sinema tweeted that she will “keep working” to approve the multi-jurisdictional agreement that was “a good step towards ensuring we have the clean, reliable water supply we need to thrive.”
Arizona is one of 10 states represented by two senators from different parties, making the current Congress the first with fewer than a dozen split Senate delegations since the 1950s, according to the University of Minnesota.
At least 30 other senators who served in the upper chamber served alongside former rivals, according to the Senate Historical Office.
One of those senators was Majority Whip John Thune, who said last week that he and Democrat Tim Johnson were able to “bury the hatchet” shortly after Thune was elected 2004, allowing the 2002 rivals to secure funding for highway funding and natural-disaster relief as well as prevent the closure of Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota.
“However,” Johnson said in his 2014 farewell speech, “honoring our Norwegian heritage, we never hugged.”
Sen. Ron Wyden for 12 years overlapped with Republican Sen. Gordon Smith, who joined Wyden less than a year after the Democrat won a negative, nationalized special election. Together, they secured funds for Oregon projects, released shared public-policy agendas, and hosted joint town halls.
“[My] idea of bipartisanship was not about taking each other’s dumb ideas,” Wyden said. “Bipartisanship is about seeing if you can find common ground.”
Both men in separate interviews attributed their collaboration to a meeting over breakfast shortly after Smith’s win. The junior senator realized his senior colleague and former opponent shared “a similar disposition toward lawmaking,” and they stayed out of each other’s reelection races until Wyden backed Smith’s 2008 challenger, now-Sen. Jeff Merkley.
“We used to joke,” Smith recalled, “that when we were in agreement on something, everyone in Oregon was delighted. And when we disagreed on something, everyone in Oregon felt represented.”
In Nevada, Sens. Harry Reid and John Ensign similarly had a mutually beneficial “nonaggression pact,” during which they partnered on judicial appointments, nuclear-waste management, and public-works appropriations. (Reid once noted the pact was limited: "It's not a Brokeback Mountain situation.”).
“It was made very clear to us in the leadership office that that [pact] was not to be violated,” said former Reid aide Jim Manley.
Friction can reignite between former foes, even moderate ones like Nebraska’s Hagel and Nelson. Hagel tried to recruitformer Republican Gov. Mike Johanns to run against Nelson in 2006 and campaigned for eventual GOP nominee Pete Ricketts, who is now governor of Nebraska. Nelson in one CNN interview at the height of a budget debate referred to Hagel as "my opponent, or, uh, my colleague, my former opponent.”
“That’s politics,” Hagel said. “You’d expect, or I’d think you’d expect, you’d support your nominee of your party. But it didn’t get personal.”
Both senators in interviews described their relationship as collegial but distant. Nelson’s staff also worked out of Hagel’s office for three months during the Capitol’s post-9/11 anthrax scare.
They voted in tandem on American military involvement in Iraq, campaign finance, gun control, and environmental recovery. They also boosted each other’s prospects for federal Cabinet nominations and more recently cosigned a Washington Post op-ed urging bipartisanship during this “dangerous period.”
“The first thing is that the person who is the winner needs to get over winning, and the person who lost needs to get over losing,” Nelson said. “If neither is able to get over whether they won or lost, the relationship isn’t going to be that good.”