WASHINGTON – Sen. Kyrsten Sinema on Saturday competed in an Ironman race in New Zealand, where she set a personal record in the grueling race – clocking in under 13 hours.
In doing so, she missed a string of high-profile votes back at the U.S. Capitol.
Between Feb. 26 and March 5, the freshman Democratic senator missed eight votes – including four procedural votes and confirmation votes on four of President Donald Trump’s nominees. Those include final votes on two powerful appeals court judges, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency and the IRS chief counsel.
Two of those nominees – Eric Miller for a lifetime term on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit and Andrew Wheeler to lead the EPA – will have significant impacts on Sinema’s home state. The 9th Circuit has jurisdiction over Arizona and the EPA is responsible for setting national environmental policies, including standards to curb air and water pollution.
Last week, Miller’s confirmation to the 9th Circuit marked the first time since at least 1979 that the Senate confirmed a federal judge over the public objections of both of the nominee’s home-state senators, according to the Washington Post.
Wheeler, a former coal industry lobbyist, was confirmed Feb. 28, despite the opposition of every Senate Democrat and one Senate Republican, Susan Collins of Maine.
Miller was confirmed by a vote of 53-46; Wheeler’s confirmation vote was 52-47.
On Tuesday, Sinema also missed a vote that confirmed Allison Jones Rushing to be a judge on the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over mid-Atlantic states. Rushing was confirmed 53-44.
Sinema is expected to resume voting on Wednesday, according to spokeswoman Hannah Hurley.
Sinema’s vote wouldn’t have tipped the scales in the votes that she missed, but “it is unfortunate,” said Bill Snape, senior counsel for the environmental group Center for Biological Diversity.
“It will be a problem if that continues,” Snape said. “I will hang my hat right now on the fact that her vote would not have swayed the result.”
Sinema noted in the Congressional Record – a log of daily events on Capitol Hill – that she was “necessarily absent,” but would have opposed both Miller’s and Wheeler’s confirmations. She said she would have voted to confirm Michael Desmond, who had broad bipartisan support, to be the IRS chief counsel.
The eight missed votes represent a large chunk – 22 percent – of the 36 roll call votes held in the Senate during Sinema’s first two months in office.
That record “is much worse than the median of 1.4% among the lifetime records of senators currently serving,” according to the nonpartisan site GovTrack.us, which keeps track of congressional votes.
As an Arizona representative to the U.S. House in 2018, she missed 10.1 percent of the votes, according to GovTrack.us, making her the 33rd most-absent lawmaker in the 435-member chamber. In 2017, before her 2018 Senate bid was in full swing, she missed 6.3 percent of House votes, making her the 61st most-absent lawmaker.
It isn’t uncommon for U.S. senators and representatives to miss votes, particularly if they get sick or have emergencies back home.
Last fall, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) opposed Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation, but she agreed to vote “present” to allow her colleague, Montana Republican Sen. Steve Daines, to stay at his daughter’s wedding rather than fly back to Washington for the close vote.
In January, Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.) missed votes to end the government shutdown because she was recovering from surgery after injuring her wrist at a fall during a Martin Luther King celebration in Las Vegas.
“People miss votes all the time,” said Don Ritchie, who was the Senate historian for nearly 40 years before he retired in 2015. Absences are particularly common during presidential campaigns, he said. “Running for president is probably the largest single reason” senators skip votes, he said.
Former Arizona Democratic Sen. Dennis DeConcini said of the particular votes Sinema missed, “9th Circuit and EPA could be very serious with this administration.” But, he noted, the most important factor is “whether or not it turned out to be a close vote.”
During his 18 years in the Senate, “I tried not to miss them,” DeConcini added. “If I thought I was going to be out for something that I just had to attend to, I would alert the leadership and tell them that I can or I can’t come back if it’s an emergency.”
With Republicans controlling the Senate, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) sets the voting schedule in the chamber.
McConnell’s Senate campaign famously used his competitor’s missed votes to his advantage when he was running to unseat then-Sen. Walter Darlington “Dee” Huddleston (D-Ky.) in 1984.
McConnell’s campaign ran an ad portraying bloodhounds looking for Huddelston in Washington. The ad accused Huddelston of skipping important votes while getting paid for speeches, likely helping McConnell eke out the upset victory.
“It can be used against you,” Ritchie said. “Quite often, the candidate running against you will use your absences to knock you.”
The Ironman triathlon was Sinema’s third. The intense competition includes a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bicycle ride and a full 26.2-mile marathon. Sinema learned how to swim and ride a bicycle ahead of her first Ironman in 2013.
“I was afraid to put my face in the water,” she told the Wall Street Journal. “I started taking swim lessons just like a little kid.”
Men make up 80 percent of the full-length Ironman participants, the Journal reported.
Sinema told the Arizona Republic last month, “I’m racing Ironman New Zealand to celebrate and highlight the increase in women’s Ironman participation in this part of the world.”
Sinema isn’t the first Arizona senator to make headlines for their travel to Pacific islands.
Sen. Jeff Flake, whose seat Sinema won when the Republican senator retired, snuck away to a deserted island in the North Pacific during a 2009 congressional recess to fulfil a dream of spending a survivalist week alone, the Washington Post reported.
Flake was a member of the U.S. House during that first trip. He returned to the region years later as a senator, taking his sons along. And in 2014, Flake traveled with Sen. Martin Heinrich, a New Mexico Democrat, to Eru, part of the Marshall Islands.
Flake and Heinrich were accompanied by a crew from the Discovery Channel for a show titled “Rival Survival.” A Post TV critic panned the final product as a “gimmicky and disappointing socio-political experiment.”