'Kind of a centrist but very pragmatic': After year in Senate, Mark Kelly touts microchips bill, infrastructure, COVID-19 aid

Yvonne Wingett Sanchez
Arizona Republic

If NASA and the Pentagon operated like the U.S. Senate, America would have never reached the moon and would have a dismal record in warfare, Sen. Mark Kelly said in a bleak assessment of his new workplace.

“The United States Senate doesn’t work like any other organization I’ve ever seen before,” Kelly, D-Ariz., said during a recent stop at a Mexican restaurant in Mesa.

“If NASA had the rules the United States Senate has, we would never get the rocket ship off the launchpad, and I think if DOD had these rules, we would lose every war.”

In little more than a year in the Senate, the former astronaut and Navy combat pilot is sounding like many others who have gone to Washington in recent years.

The gridlock hasn’t dampened his enthusiasm for the job, but it has prompted him to express a more direct openness to change Senate rules in Democrats’ bid to pass voting rights legislation that he has co-sponsored.

But on the No. 1 procedural change many Democrats want to see changed — the legislative filibuster that allows the minority Republican Party to block much of the Democrats' agenda — Kelly still won't say what his position is even as his colleague, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., last week doubled down on her support of keeping it.

With the Senate evenly divided, Republicans can filibuster the measures and block them from advancing unless Democrats coalesce around rule changes. President Joe Biden, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., voting rights advocates, party activists and many voters say the issue has become urgent as more Republican-led states have moved to limit access to the polls.

“It’s important we pass this legislation and maybe it gets corruption out of our political system, it gets, you know, the dark money … out of our political system and it expands voting rights,” Kelly said. “Our democracy is best served when people have access to the ballot. … That legislation, I think, is critically important.”

On the 2020 campaign trail, Kelly promised a bipartisan approach to lowering the cost of prescription drugs, helping make young undocumented immigrants American citizens and to help avert the worst effects of climate change.

Instead, he acknowledges the Senate’s somnolent pace and partisan culture have made bipartisan compromise vanishingly rare.

It’s not that he sees no progress; he supported the $1.2 trillion infrastructure legislation largely brokered by Sinema. But collaborative legislating is the exception in an institution constantly girding for the next election, however distant.

The chamber's operations, which have helped block or delay Democratic wins during a window of unified party control, have left him now expressing an openness to changing Senate rules.

Senate Democrats have failed to muster support to pass voting rights legislation or Biden's signature social safety net legislation after Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., announced in December he was opposing the $1.75 trillion proposal. His opposition pushed the debate into this year, which could pose a challenge to Democrats in the upcoming midterm elections, which traditionally favor the party not in control of the White House.

Kelly said he will examine any proposals put before the chamber and will weigh whether they are good for the state and nation. 

"There are a bunch of proposals out there that continue to be talked about," he said. "... If there's a proposal and a real change, I want to see something that makes our democracy stronger."

A military man, Kelly, 57, has said he has found navigating Congress more difficult than commanding space shuttles and flying combat missions during Operation Desert Storm.

Candidate Mark Kelly explains how running for office is like being an astronaut with reporters Ronald Hansen and Yvonne Wingett Sanchez.

Kelly is preparing to defend the seat he won in 2020 to fill the remainder of the final term of the late Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., that ends January 2023. The winner of the 2022 Senate election will serve for a full six-year term.

Political analysts have rated the race a toss-up in what is expected to be a bleak political year for Democrats because of the national political environment, Biden's high disapproval ratings, and a field of viable Republican contenders.

While Kelly is hauling in millions of dollars to go to battle, Republicans blast him as too liberal and too loyal to Biden.

His critics contrast him with Sinema, an influential centrist in a 50-50 split Senate who may have dealt a fatal blow to Democrats' hopes of passing voting rights legislation and helped scale back Biden's massive social-spending proposal that has stalled in Congress over concerns of inflation.

Throughout his time in office, Senate Republicans' campaign arm have accused Kelly of "hiding behind Kyrsten Sinema" instead of giving straightforward answers on where he stands on the filibuster and the social-infrastructure bill.

"Coward Mark Kelly is shaking in his space boots because he knows his days of refusing to take a position on a simple issue are coming to an end," National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesperson Katherine Cooksey said Friday in a written statement. "In just a few days, Schumer will shove Kelly off the filibuster cliff, forcing him to give Arizona voters a clear answer for the very first time, something he doesn’t want to do."

Sinema, who campaigned for Kelly in 2020 and has worked with him in the Senate to pass trillions of dollars in COVID-19 relief funding and the $1.2 trillion physical infrastructure package last year, said she was “delighted” to have Kelly as a partner.

“I feel confident that he's heading into this election with all the tools he needs to ensure that Arizonans know he's the right senator for our state,” Sinema told The Arizona Republic. “I'll be there with him, helping him every step of the way.”

Those who study the Senate and its members characterize Kelly as a “smart as hell” workhorse more interested in adding to committee meetings and debates than celebrity status.

“As I’ve talked to other Democratic senators, they love him,” said Norman Ornstein, an emeritus scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. They cite his background in the military, science, and activism on gun violence in the aftermath of the 2011 shooting near Tucson that killed six and wounded 13, including his wife, then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, he said.

Former U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords and her husband, Mark Kelly, a former NASA astronaut, converse at their home  in Tucson on Tuesday, September 23, 2014. Giffords and Kelly founded "Americans for Responsible Solutions", a non-profit lobbying organization working on gun control issues. Giffords was shot and severely wounded during a political event in Tucson on January 8, 2011. Six people died in the shooting.

“They also see him as kind of a centrist but very pragmatic,” Ornstein said. “He’s not somebody who is going to rock the boat who will try to use his leverage in a 50-50 Senate to, you know, get something extra or stick it to others. And he works hard.”

Ornstein said Kelly has shown himself to be a reliable Democrat who has spent his time putting his head down, focusing on policy, and projecting that he is serious about the job.

Weeks after his swearing in, Kelly was in the Senate chamber on Jan. 6, 2020, when a mob of rioters overran the Capitol. He evacuated with his colleagues and later, voted to convict former President Donald Trump on the article of impeachment for inciting an insurrection.

The Senate acquitted Trump after the historic impeachment trial; a 57-43 majority of the Senate voted to convict the former president, falling short of the two-thirds majority required for conviction.

Kelly has approved of Biden’s Cabinet picks and has voted in line with Biden’s position 97.5% of the time during the 117th Congress as tracked by the website FiveThirtyEight.

At the same time, he has been critical of Biden on the border, asking the federal government to reimburse the state for National Guard troops the governor sent to the border. Kelly, joined by Sinema, have characterized the influx of migrants at the border a “crisis” and said the state and border towns should not have to bear the financial brunt.

Kelly has also said Biden could do more on the increasing inflation, which has hit a 39-year high. Kelly has urged the White House to crack down on companies that are price-gouging, to create a task force focused on lowering food prices, and to combat a truck-driver shortage that is contributing to supply-chain problems.

A pandemic-era senator, Kelly has leveraged his background in science to urge Arizonans to get vaccinated. He literally jabbed a few last April as a way to combat vaccine hesitancy.

Back in Washington, he has voted for trillions in coronavirus relief, helping to send direct payments to families, aiding small businesses, increasing unemployment payments, expanding child tax credits, and funding the distribution of vaccines throughout the pandemic.

For months, he worked alongside Sinema and a gang of about two dozen lawmakers to negotiate the landmark physical infrastructure measure that will address a backlog of needed improvements to roads, bridges, and upgrades to other critical infrastructure.

Kelly used his influence to direct funds to improve Western water systems, ports of entry at the U.S.-Mexico border, wildfire prevention, and upgrades to power grids, which could mean for consumers fewer blackouts, cheaper energy costs and a cleaner environment.

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, began working with Kelly shortly after his arrival to pass legislation to create a wildfire prevention commission to help combat the West’s wildfire crisis. The two senators got it included in the infrastructure bill, which is now law.

“It’s not something that everybody in the country recognizes, but Mark recognizes like I do, that for something to become the law, it requires Republicans and Democrats to agree,” Romney told The Republic. “If you want to get something done, you have to work in a bipartisan basis. The alternative is just to do things that sound good at home with the base, but which never become law.”

Kelly, he said, is a pragmatist who comes to the Senate to fight for his point of view.

“We don't always agree, but he’s a person who is reliable and you can trust him to follow through with this word," Romney said.

Back home in Arizona, Kelly is touting how the law will help families, business owners, manufacturers, and laborers with road tours featuring everyday constituents who are benefiting from the legislation.

The stops across the state come as Democrats nationally seek to demonstrate their accomplishments amid an intraparty battle over Biden’s stalled social-welfare package and voter concerns over Biden’s handling of the pandemic, inflation, and the economy.

Kelly has endorsed provisions in the Build Back Better proposal but has not explicitly said how he would vote on it. He has been involved in negotiating the prescription drug piece of the proposal, which has the goal of lowering the cost of some medications.

“I’m hopeful we can eventually come to some conclusion," he said.

At one stop Jan. 7 at Moreno’s Mexican Grill in Mesa, Kelly and Small Business Administrator Isabella Casillas Guzman touted an outreach program the senator championed as part of the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021. The program helps small businesses — particularly those run by women, veterans and minorities — cut through government bureaucracy to apply for SBA financial aid or grants.

Kelly said he frequently heard complaints from many of the state’s 611,000 small business owners, especially in rural parts of the state, about difficulties they had accessing COVID-19 relief funds.

Some in rural parts of the state sat on hold for 30 minutes only for the call to drop. Their internet would go down as they tried to fill out online applications. Sometimes there were challenging language barriers, he told those gathered outside of the Mexican restaurant.

“It’s helping small businesses and that’s going to have a real impact,” Kelly said of the program. “It means jobs saved, bills paid and local businesses staying open. I know that small businesses are more than just a name on some paperwork — they are the foundation of our communities, whether it’s here in Mesa or on the other side of the state.” 

The program was a lifeline for Angel Moreno, who started his business with a hot dog cart in 2002 and grew it to eight locations around the Valley.

Moreno, 50, a Democrat, said the program helped him access hundreds of thousands of dollars through the Paycheck Protection Program and a disaster loan program to keep 190 employees working during the pandemic.

“He has put a lot of attention” to small businesses, said Moreno, who said he voted for Kelly last year. That attention “has made me like him more.”

An hour later and across town in central Phoenix, Kelly and Casillas Guzman met with small business owners in the parking lot of Frances boutique, where they talked about the rise of e-commerce and how the bipartisan infrastructure law will increase broadband and internet access for underserved communities across Arizona and the nation.

His biggest accomplishment, Kelly said, is a measure he helped negotiate and whip support for but has not cleared the House of Representatives.

Kelly, a member of the Armed Services Committee who chairs its Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities, took a leading role in advancing legislation that includes a $52 billion boost to microchip manufacturing amid a shortage that has disrupted the global supply chain.

Those microchips, which run everything from cell phones, to coffee machines, cars and advanced fighter airplanes, are crucial to the nation’s defense and competitiveness. The U.S. once supplied about 40% of the world’s semiconductor chips; that supply has plummeted.

Last spring and summer, Kelly could be seen on the floor of the Senate carrying a tally sheet as he urged Republican senators to support The CHIPS Act, which could expand semiconductor manufacturing and high-paying jobs in his home state.

Day after day, week after week, he worked to build a coalition to pass the measure through the divided Senate.

“Most folks in the United States Senate, I would say, especially when you deal with the Republicans that are on Armed Services, realize that this is a national security issue, and with my background, I approach this as more so a national security imperative than as an economic one,” Kelly told The Republic last summer.

But the economics behind the measure were key to building support: “It is thousands of good paying jobs for our state. But when you're selling it to somebody from another state, they may not care about a job in suburban Phoenix. But what they care about is, are we going to have semiconductor chips to put in our next generation fighter airplanes, our next missile system?"

Kelly last week partnered with Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., on another piece of legislation he sees crucial to national defense: the Restoring Essential Energy and Security Holdings Onshore for Rare Earths Act would restrict use of rare earth minerals from China in sensitive Department of Defense systems in the coming years. Under the legislation, the military would establish a permanent stockpile of those minerals, particularly those used for defense manufacturing.

Sen. John Hickenlooper, D-Colo., sits next to Kelly in the Senate chamber and on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee and the two have become friends.

He said Kelly has established himself as a respected partner in attacking issues important to the American West. As part of the Gang of 22 senators who worked on the infrastructure legislation, Hickenlooper recalled Kelly focusing intently on water infrastructure projects and funding and how the funding could address climate change.

“The one thing I think he’s established himself as is just rock-solid. He looks at problems always from, you know, ‘What's the best outcome? How does this work?,’” Hickenlooper said. “I mean, almost no politics. He's focused really on what is the best solution for Arizona. What's the best solution for America?”

Hickenlooper, who was familiar with Kelly’s biography but didn’t know him before he joined the Senate, said he was struck by his demeanor.

“He’s not trying to prove anything — he is trying to make the world a better place,” he said. “There’s a fair amount of people here that were president of their class in high school and college that are, you know, used to being the center of attention. And he’d be perfectly happy not to be the center of attention at all.”

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