This is the week Congress decides the fate of millions of Americans. Whether people across the country have jobs and health care coverage hinges on the current negotiations in Washington.
But the politics of these negotiations obscure the important details for the people whose lives will be dramatically affected.
Take the jobs bill. In a breakthrough for Democrats, five Republican Senators parted ways with their colleagues and voted for the $15 billion bill this week. The employer tax breaks and public works projects on the bill will together lead to a couple of hundred thousand of new jobs around the country, Democrats say.
But the bill that seems to be on its way to passage is a stripped-down version of a much larger, $85 billion effort that already had significant bipartisan support. In order to get those Republican votes, Harry Reid cut way back on the original jobs bill--including eliminating a crucial extension of unemployment benefits that will run out at the end of the month.
On March 1 more than 1 million Americans will lose unemployment and COBRA health insurance if Congress doesn't pass a separate extension of those benefits.
Today is a National Day of Action to Save Unemployment. The Center for Media and Democracy. and Jobs 4 America Now have set up email and phone boards to help people to contact their members of Congress and urge them to extend unemployment.
On the larger health care reform debate, there has been a lot of analysis of whether this week's health-care summit will be a "game changer" for Obama. But here, too, we are now dealing with a much less ambitious reform effort than originally planned. The Obama Administration posted its health reform plan online, essentially endorsing almost all of the Senate version of health reform.
By getting behind a moderate-sounding plan, and challenging the Republicans to put up their own ideas, instead of obstructing and making accusations, Obama has taken the offense. But the substance of the plan is disappointing, and does not include a public option.
Some progressive activists, led by the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, had hoped that the public option might be resuscitated in this week's negotiations. Twenty-three senators signed a letter declaring their support for bringing back the public option in a reconciliation process, which could push through a health care bill with only 50 votes. But White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters today that there is not enough support for a public option in Congress, and that's why it wasn't in the President's plan.
Democrats seem to be going along with the White House on this, including Senator Jay Rockefeller, Democrat of West Virginia, a universal health care proponent who once lambasted his colleague Max Baucus for removing the public option from the Senate health care plan.
"I don't know, I think the timing of the public option piece of legislation, which is not in what the President's going to suggest at the summit I think, doing that could create a lot of turbulence when we don't need it," Rockefeller told Brian Beutler of Talking Points Memo.
The President is in his comfort zone with Republicans this week, forcing them to argue against uncontroversial job creation efforts and health care expansion. He seems determined to win over skeptics by seizing the middle ground. If his town hall meetings and his appearance at the Republican Caucus event after the State of the Union are any indication, he will come off sounding reasonable and fair, in contrast to his political opponents.
But for the 1 million plus Americans who still don't know if they will get unemployment or health care benefits past the end of the month, and for the millions more who are uninsured or underinsured, playing in the political safety zone just seems like one big missed opportunity.
Ruth Conniff is the political editor of The Progressive magazine. To subscribe for just $14.97 a year, just click here.