Sunday, March 21st, 2010. Remember that date.
I have been involved in progressive politics for over four decades. This Sunday at 2:00 pm, the House of Representatives will convene to conduct the most important vote it has cast in those forty years. The vote is historic both on substantive and political grounds.
If it passes, the health care reform bill will make it national policy that health care is finally a right in the United States of America. And it will rein in the out-of-control private health insurance industry that has given us a health care system that costs two times more per person than any other country and produces results that rank only 37th in the world. It will mark a turning point in a century-long struggle between the interests of everyday Americans and enormously powerful private interests.
That vote will also have a massive impact on the future of the Obama Presidency and the progressive movement in America. Success will empower him - and the Democratic Party and progressive forces at its base - to make more change. It will empower us to hold accountable the Wall Street banks that wrecked our economy and cost seven million Americans their jobs. It will empower us to lay the foundation for the creation of millions of clean energy jobs - and free America from the tyranny of foreign oil. It will strengthen our ability to pressure Congress to create the jobs America so desperately needs.
Failure, on the other hand, would deal an incredible blow to the President's ability to make progressive change. For the President, and for all of us who hold progressive values, failure is simply not an option.
To his credit, President Obama has bet the political ranch on the outcome of Sunday's vote. On Sunday, we'll all see what he's got in his hand.
The vote on Sunday will also have an enormous effect on the President's ability to fix our broken immigration system. This gets me to the second reason that Sunday will be such an historic day.
Several miles down the mall - at exactly the same moment that Congress convenes to pass health care reform - tens of thousands of supporters of immigration reform will gather to demand that Congress to pass a long overdue overhaul of the nation's immigration system. The crowd will include immigrant families, people in law enforcement, public officials, religious and labor leaders - and representatives from the business community.
The families of immigrants - and especially Latino immigrants - are increasingly desperate for change, because while immigration enforcement and deportations have inexorably moved forward, until recently immigration reform has not.
Now, that has begun to change. Today, Democratic Senator Charles Schumer and Republican Lindsey Graham published a bi-partisan blueprint for immigration reform in an op-ed for the Washington Post. The President responded with an endorsement of that blueprint -- and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid committed that if a bill based on the blueprint is reported out of Committee, it will be considered this year on the Senate floor.
The march on Sunday could easily be remembered as the historic, symbolic beginning of a campaign that finally brings order and justice to America's shattered immigration system - and with it hope for millions of immigrant families that currently live in the shadows of Americans society.
The immigration reform forces are not calling for amnesty. They are advocating a common sense, bi-partisan proposal to sharpen and modernize immigration enforcement, rationalize future immigration, and require that immigrants that are now undocumented become legal residents, pay a fine, and be integrated into the mainstream of the American economy. They are advocating proposals that would end what amounts to a black market in human labor that undercuts the salaries of American workers and makes employers who play by the rules uncompetitive.
But just as the health care vote carries with it massive political implications for the future of the progressive movement in America, the immigration struggle may have far-reaching consequences for the future of the Republican Party.
One segment of the Republican Party - lead by Senator Graham - understands all too well that the Republican Party will ultimately be consigned to permanent minority status if it cannot appeal to the growing number of Hispanic Americans. And he also understands that immigration is a politically realigning issue for Hispanics that is every bit as potent as the Civil Rights movement was for African Americans.
In the months ahead we'll see if other Republicans follow Graham's lead, or whether they take the path of least political resistance in the short term and squander their political relevance in the decades to come.
On the one hand, Sunday, March 21st could mark the climax of a decades-long battle to make health care a right. On the other, it could begin the final chapter of a struggle that has enormous consequences for millions of immigrant families and the future of the American economy.
One way or the other, March 21st could be a big day in the history of the United States. But the significance of March 21st, 2010 will not be determined the way this weekend's NCAA playoffs are decided -- a few star players won't be the only thing that counts.
In both cases, everyday Americans, from all over the country, will have an enormous say about the outcome.
The results of Sunday's health care vote are still very much up for grabs. A lot will ride on what the remaining swing members of Congress hear from their constituents between now and 2 p.m. Sunday. It would be unthinkable if health care reform loses by one or two votes.
Yesterday, speaking to the House Democratic Caucus, Congressman John Lewis (D-GA)--who helped lead the historic civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, a man who knows something about making history -- called on his colleagues to stand up and do the same.
He told them that some people say that voting for health care reform is a "dangerous" vote. But, he said, there are no police with bludgeons, fire hoses or guns waiting when you cross this bridge. We're not calling on you to confront growling dogs. "You just put your voting card in the slot and you vote yes - and you make history," he said.
The insurance companies and their political allies are engaged in a desperate last-ditch effort to stop the bill. They are flooding the Capitol switchboard with calls. Don't let them drown out the voices of everyday Americans. If you've called before, call your Member of Congress again - right now, at 202-225-3121 - the moment you finish reading this column. Tell them to step up and make history. Tell them that if they vote right, you've got their back.
Tell them that you'll campaign for their re-election, and defend them against the lies and fear that the insurance companies have used, without shame, to try to protect their CEO salaries and exploding profits.
Tell them to do what's right for America and the future of their grandkids, and to forget about trying to trade their votes for petty parochial benefits. Ask them to search their souls about why they came to Congress in the first place.
Tell them that they must choose between the interests of the insurance giants and those of everyday Americans. Tell them you will hold them accountable at the polls.
The same goes for the immigration battle. There is still plenty of time to go to the Mall in Washington, DC for this Sunday's march - or to sign up to be part of the rapidly-building campaign to pass immigration reform.
This Sunday, the spirit of the late Senator Ted Kennedy will once again infuse Washington. Throughout his career he led both the battle for universal health care and for immigration reform.
This Sunday, March 21st, let's make Senator Kennedy proud.