Getting jobs done

Democrats in the nation’s capital are debating which should come first — a jobs bill or healthcare reform.

Some lawmakers who have been working feverishly to get health reform done want no distractions, especially when the legislation is so close to the finish line.

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But there is a strong political counterargument: The bulk of the benefits in the healthcare legislation won’t go into effect until after the 2012 election, whereas the impact of a jobs bill could be felt by Election Day of this year.

Dems say that they can walk and chew gum at the same time, and of course they can. But it’s also true that Congress works one big issue at a time and there is a need to prioritize.

The House has passed a jobs bill, and before Christmas its leaders were pressing the Senate to adopt their legislation without changes. Not surprisingly, the upper chamber was noncompliant.

The Senate plans to tackle a jobs bill, though for the moment healthcare reform is the top agenda item.

Democrats know they must reduce unemployment. They actually have been saying so for months.

In June, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis called the 9.4 percent unemployment rate “unacceptable.” Similarly, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said the jobless rate was “unacceptable” when it hit 10.2 percent in November.

These were good sound bites at the time, but they could boomerang come November if the unemployment rate is still close to 10 percent.

Everyone is talking about jobs. While shying away from clear-cut healthcare remedies, Republicans have been more aggressive giving their solutions to the ailing job market.

And in a speech that raised some eyebrows at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Tom Donohue on Tuesday warned that the nation faces a double-dip recession because of the taxes and regulations under consideration by President Barack Obama and the Democratic-led Congress.

Democrats must pass healthcare reform, for it is Obama’s top priority, and he and they would be weakened if reform simply did not happen. But cutting into joblessness will loom larger in the midterm elections.

If the final healthcare bill were to receive Obama’s signature in March or April, the reforms it embodies would be delayed by not a single day. But if there is no jobs bill until then, unemployment on Election Day may still be at a level that senior Dems have labeled “unacceptable.”

Will the Dems risk offering voters something unacceptable? Washington has seen a jobs summit; several pieces of legislation are being labeled, more or less convincingly, as jobs bills. But what the country has not yet seen is jobs growth. And desperate voters make for nervous politicians.