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Henry: Politics at the Expense of Progress Must Stop

With the clock ticking on the debt limit and tough decisions to make on deficit reduction and the federal budget, Congress’ first priority should be jump-starting our economy by creating good American jobs — not playing politics at the expense of progress for our nation.

Perhaps the first test for lawmakers will be for them to put petty politics aside and do the right thing by raising the debt limit. Most economists agree that failure to do so would put the country on course for an immediate financial crisis that would drive up interest rates on just about everything from mortgages to auto loans and credit cards to student loans.

The damage to the credit markets would likely force massive layoffs, putting millions of jobs at risk at big and small businesses alike. Seniors would also be left hanging in the balance because of a downward spiral that would threaten Medicare and Social Security.

Vice President Joseph Biden’s ongoing negotiations with a bipartisan group of Members of Congress are a step in the right direction. Yet, despite the grave ramifications of defaulting on our national debt, elected leaders seem ready to play a game of “political chicken” by complicating the process with a deal on the budget and deficit reduction, instead of tackling the issue head-on in a “clean” bill.

Politics at the expense of progress was on display last month, when House Republicans passed a budget that slashed critical services, including ending Medicare as we know it. These lawmakers are cutting off their noses to spite their faces by gutting the funding that would put our country on a clear path to win the future. When we jeopardize our children’s education, skimp on investments in clean energy development and an already crumbling infrastructure, and deny workers training to advance their skills, we are setting up future generations for failure.

“Global caps” on all federal spending, which have the support of lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, would have the same effect. A one-sided approach to addressing our fiscal problems, “global caps” would force the adoption of many of the radical proposals included in the Republican 2012 budget proposal and would dangerously undermine the safety of our water, air, food and workplaces.

The federal budget is more than a fiscal document — it is a statement of our nation’s priorities and values. Republicans’ eagerness to propose unconscionable cuts that would devastate working families, while fighting for even more tax giveaways to big corporations and CEOs, makes it crystal clear whose values they share and whose needs they prioritize.

As working families are digging out of the greatest recession in a generation, the Fortune 500 reaped an 81 percent increase in profits last year — just the latest indicator of the undeniably sweet deal corporations have today. Many ship jobs overseas, refusing to create good American jobs, all the while getting a pass on investing in this country by not paying their fair share of taxes. There’s a fundamental incongruity in Republican leaders’ expectation that working people make even greater sacrifices to close a deficit they did not create and that has had an overwhelming effect on their families.

Two questions hang over all of these pressing issues: Where will Democrats draw a line in the sand? Will they stand up for working families by refusing any deal that includes only spending cuts and neglects to raise significant revenue by curbing tax giveaways for big corporations and millionaires?

Hopefully, yes. A budget deal without raising revenue would be capitulation, not compromise.

Democrats must stand up for a country that values shared responsibility to get the economy on the right track. This means protecting Medicare, Social Security and Medicaid beneficiaries from “reforms” that simply reduce access to affordable care and remove our social safety net.

The real shame in the deficit debate is that while more than 13 million Americans remain out of work, neither party has taken any action on jobs. Lawmakers and big corporations must step up to the plate by creating the good American jobs that will generate much-needed revenue and create less reliance on federal programs.

Politics aside, we must put Americans back to work if we are serious about reducing the deficit and enabling our nation to emerge from an economic crisis that continues to cripple working families.

Mary Kay Henry is president of the Service Employees International Union.

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