Senator’s Medical Situation Likely Postpones Action on Build Back Better Beyond SOTU

February 2, 2022

A Senator’s medical emergency has likely stymied Democratic efforts to pass the tax and spending reconciliation bill (aka Build Back Better) before President Biden’s March 1st State of the Union Address.

Senator Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) suffered a stroke on January 27th. And while he is expected to make a full recovery, his return to the Senate is largely unknown. However, it is expected that he will not return before the president gives his speech to the nation, according to sources who have experience with people who have suffered strokes.

His absence in the upper chamber means that Democrats do not have the votes to pass the tax and spending bill, which stalled in the Senate after Senator Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) said in December that he could not support the legislation as currently written.

Passing the legislation will require the support of all Senate Democrats (and Vice President Kamala Harris) since no Republicans are expected to support it. (There are procedural maneuvers that would allow passage of the bill, but GOP Senators are highly unlikely to agree to those tactics if it helps enact the tax and spending bill.)

If Past is Prologue:

In past situations where Senators have suffered a stroke, their return to Washington was months in the making:

  • Former Senator Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) suffered a stroke in January of 2012 and did not return to the Capitol until January of 2013;
  • Former Senator Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) suffered a stroke in December of 2006 and did not return to the Capitol until September of 2007.

If Luján were to be out for the rest of the year, and Republicans take control of either the House or the Senate after the 2022 elections, the tax and spending bill will likely not be brought to a vote this year or in the next Congress (2023 thru 2024) because of Republican opposition to the legislation.

Also, the above scenarios about the other Senators only show that recuperation from a stroke can be time-consuming. Senator Luján’s medical situation is different from his predecessors, and therefore the time they were away from office likely has no bearing on when the Senator from New Mexico will return to the Capitol.

The Latest in a Line of Setbacks:

Senator Luján’s medical emergency is the most recent bump in the road to passing the tax and spending bill from Congress.

Senator Manchin has thrown up several roadblocks to Senate passage of the bill:

  • He deemed the bill “dead” unless it undergoes a major rewrite;
  • He insisted that the legislation goes through Senate Committees, which would require Republican support to pass that is not expected to happen;
  • He stalled progress in December on the legislation by saying he could not support it as currently written.

The House approved its version of the tax and spending bill in November. But before passage, Democrats in that chamber were at odds over what should be included in the legislation. One of the biggest disagreements was upping the cap on the State and Local Tax Deduction (SALT). Those arguments continue to this day in that chamber.

Also, Senator Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has vowed that the Senate bill will not increase the SALT cap. If he stays true to his word, several House Democrats have vowed to oppose the bill if the SALT $10,000 cap is not addressed – and if they stay true to their word the tax and spending will not pass Congress.

Despite all the disruptions, Democratic leaders in Congress and the White House contend that the tax and spending bill will eventually become law. However, there is no timeline for when this will happen. Leaders have also not ascribed a deadline for when they will stop trying to pass the bill.

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