As Black History Month continues, our nation celebrates the accomplishments and contributions of African-Americans. At the same time, we must also look to the future and address new challenges and possibilities to make our country a place of opportunity for all Americans.

Today, President Obama and Senate Democrats are working to advance an agenda that creates jobs, cuts wasteful spending and improves our economy. In the last Congress Republicans and Tea Party supporters vehemently opposed much of our effort. But during this Congress we must work together to find solutions that will move our nation forward, even in the face of contentious upcoming budget debates.

As Senate Majority Leader, I am well aware of the effect of unemployment on Americans. Two years ago, President Obama and Congressional Democrats advanced an economic recovery package that prevented the Great Recession from becoming the second Great Depression. But we still have much work to do. Many families in Nevada and across the country are still hurting. The economic recovery is still taking root, and African-Americans still face unemployment at a rate far above the national average. That’s why creating jobs and improving our economy is still the top priority of Senate Democrats.

The U.S. Senate will soon pass a bill to improve America’s air transportation infrastructure. Experts predict this measure alone will create or protect more than 280,000 jobs in this country, and make air travel safer and more convenient.

The Senate will address other job-creating legislation such as the highway bill, which will invest in roads, bridges, highways, tunnels and public transportation. This kind of investment creates jobs in engineering, architectural design, construction, vehicle operations, maintenance, landscaping and more.

Other efforts to improve our economy include expanding the use of renewable energy, growing the green economy and providing job training. We will seek to help small and minority business by expanding access to capital. And we will help create opportunities for small businesses to bid on research and development grants at every federal agency, which will foster new technologies.

And in the coming months we will work with organizations like the National Urban League to revive the Youth Summer Jobs Initiative, and continue working with our colleagues in the Congressional Black Caucus to enhance entrepreneurship and economic opportunities in all communities.

Despite our efforts to create jobs, our opponents argue that we should reduce the scope of our investment. They propose that we sit idle while Americans struggle. Some even call for repeal of health care reform.

Democrats have always said that we can improve the health care bill passed last year. But repealing health care reform in its entirety is reckless, short-sighted and would hurt countless Americans, especially African-Americans. Repeal would raise prescription prices for seniors, increase taxes on small businesses and allow insurance companies to once again deny care to sick children.

The health care reform bill signed into law by President Obama will provide health insurance to 32 million Americans who were previously uninsured. It will also take a major step in reducing and eliminating racial and ethnic health disparities, which have contributed to higher mortality rates in minority communities.

Nowhere was this dilemma illustrated more than in the 2007 case of a 12-year-old boy from Maryland who needed basic dental care to treat an infection. Without basic, proper care, the infection grew worse and was ultimately fatal. Ensuring access to quality, affordable care for all Americans will save lives.

It also means people will live longer, more productive lives because in the future, insurance companies will be barred from denying health care or charging more for pre-existing conditions like diabetes, asthma or sickle cell anemia. It means our seniors can afford the medication they need. It means that insurance companies cannot arbitrarily eliminate or cap your health insurance when you get sick. It means that children can stay on their parent’s health insurance policy until age 26.

In the upcoming budget debate, Democrats will focus on reducing spending by cutting waste and excess like government giveaways to oil companies, but Republicans are pushing extreme measures like privatizing or making deep cuts in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid and eliminating student loans for college.

They want to protect their buddies at big oil companies that rake in billions in profits.
Even now some Republicans are suggesting a government shutdown similar to what we experienced in 1995. A government shutdown could delay social security checks and veterans’ benefits. And it risks throwing our economy back into crisis just as we start to turn the corner.

My colleagues and I cannot let that happen and we’re prepared to challenge those who try to impose failed and reckless policies of the past.

Our nation has made progress toward creating opportunities for all Americans, and this February allows us to pause and celebrate the contributions African-Americans have made to the nation and humanity. It also compels us to consider the issues that adversely affect African-Americans and our nation. If we work together, we will find bipartisan solutions to these issues. The progress we make today will create opportunities for others to make history tomorrow.