WASHINGTON -- Congress has a lot on its plate these days. Immigration reform and gun control have taken center stage in the Senate, and House Republican leaders are ramping up their calls for a balanced budget. But the one issue that Americans routinely say matters the most appears to have taken a back seat: jobs.
Gone are the days of party leaders demanding action on "jobs, jobs, jobs." When Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) recently outlined the top 10 priority bills for the year, just two of them were directly related to job creation. (A third one has jobs in the title, but the "Agriculture Jobs Bill" is actually just the farm bill). House GOP leaders, meanwhile, emerged from their annual party retreat last month with their members fired up about one issue: their "No Budget, No Pay" proposal, which would temporarily withhold lawmakers' pay if they don't pass a budget.
Some senators tried to explain the disconnect between what the public says is their biggest priority and what Congress is actually doing.
"Well, there are lots of subjects out there with great import, and somehow or other, we bounce from one to another depending on the severity of an incident," Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) said. "We should be talking about jobs because therein lies our return with the economy."
Lautenberg was briefly interrupted during the interview, which took place in a crowded hallway. When he returned to the conversation, he was already onto another subject.
"So, today if you get a chance, just read the story that's portrayed in The New York Times about the guns at the school," he said. "We've got a chance to do some really good business in the next several days."
Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) said there is "a positive trend" in the economy right now, so lawmakers have moved onto other topics like gun control and immigration reform.
"Let's see what happens over the next three to six months," he said. "If we see [the economy] taking a turn for the worse, believe me, this conversation is going to change very quickly."
"Oh God," Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said with a laugh, when asked why nobody in Congress seems to be talking about jobs anymore. "Well, because it's the thing of the day [that moves], you know? It's sort of 'push, push, push' on that thing."
Feinstein is leading the charge on one of those things: she's sponsoring the assault weapons ban bill, a key piece of President Barack Obama's gun violence package.
As for Reid's list of priority bills for the year not being especially focused on job creation, Feinstein demurred.
"You talk to Mr. Reid about that, okay?" she said.
A request for comment from Reid's office was not returned. A request for comment from the office of House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) was also not returned.
Heller was right in saying the economy has been steadily, albeit slowly, picking up steam. The economy added 157,000 jobs in January while the unemployment rate ticked up slightly to 7.9 percent. But the total number of unemployed or underemployed people still hovers at 23.1 million. That includes people actively looking for work, discouraged job seekers and people working part-time but in need of full-time work. And poll after poll shows that the majority of Americans think the economy should be on the front burner more than anything else.
Obama took some heat last week for dissolving his jobs council just as new data was released indicating that the economy had contracted. During his daily briefing last Thursday, White House press secretary Jay Carney emphasized that the advisory council was only intended to be in operation for two years and, despite news of the economy contracting, the work of the council was a success.
"We have had sustained economic growth now for three years. We have had 34 months, I believe it is, of job creation; 2 million jobs in the last year alone," Carney said, blaming GOP leaders for blocking the president's jobs agenda. "What is absolutely true is that if the Republicans want ... to embrace infrastructure investment, if they want to embrace measures that would put teachers back to work or cops on the job, if they want to embrace some of the proposals the president put forward for investment in new industries and new technologies, we would welcome that. But unfortunately, by and large, we’ve faced resistance on that."
Democratic senators had plenty of ideas for things Congress could do right now that would give a jolt to the economy, even though none of them are going anywhere anytime soon. Feinstein said launching an infrastructure bank would be hugely effective, particularly since "the cost of money right now is so cheap." Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) cited his bill to create a 10 percent payroll tax credit for businesses. And Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), waving his hands in the air over the need to do more on jobs, said energy reforms would have a major impact.
"It is really quite incredible that we're not talking about jobs," Sanders said. "If senators go home to their states, they're going to find that people are unemployed in much too large a number, and underemployed ... Every poll that's coming out and asks people what they think, they say jobs, the economy, unemployment. That's top."
Of course, one could argue that the issues being debated in Congress right now are related to jobs, in some way. Many senators did.
"Everything we're trying to do is about creating jobs. Our budget discussions, the fiscal cliff discussions -- all aimed toward protecting jobs growth," said Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.).
"This is January," he continued. "We have to get confirmations. We have to deal with the realities of the new administration. That's what we're doing. We also have deadlines. It's all related to job creation."
Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) explained how he saw gun safety and immigration reform as jobs issues.
"You can connect [gun control] to creating more security in our communities," Udall said. On immigration reform, it is a jobs issue "in the sense of creating certainty for the business community and for all those people in the shadows who would otherwise be more productive, more engaged, more a part of the American experience."
Asked if he thought lawmakers should just add the word "jobs" to the title of every bill since one could argue that all bills are jobs bills, Udall laughed. But he then began ticking off other non-jobs issues that he said should be viewed as jobs measures: budget sequestration, strengthening Medicare and raising the debt ceiling.
"Those do directly affect our economy. They truly do," Udall said. "We need to not be letting the debt ceiling expire."
Senate Democrats are holding their annual retreat this week, and party leaders insisted that jobs will be a main focus.
"We're committed to job creation. There's no question about it," said Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.).
Still, Durbin conceded that Congress isn't tackling large-scale jobs packages anymore -- a reality he blamed on GOP opposition to costly spending measures.
"The notion of a stimulus package is not in the cards with the Republican House," he said.