Sixty years ago, a union organizer named Walter Reuther changed America forever when he negotiated employer-funded pensions and health care for UAW workers at Chrysler and GM. To the 180 million people who now get their health insurance through their employers because Walter Reuther made that deal for his union members, it probably doesn’t matter that he was a socialist.

President Obama is holding a prime time press conference tonight to discuss his plan to reform our healthcare system. And it probably doesn’t matter to the 47 million uninsured who would finally get coverage that RNC Chairman Michael Steele called the plan “socialism.” The last details are being worked out and we’ve now gotten to the point where quality, affordable health care for all Americans is within reach. The fact that it’s being held up by four Democratic senators who need a lesson in progressive politics is unacceptable.

Because 2010 is an election year, any reform must be passed in 2009. So the president wants a deal done before Congress leaves for their August recess. Last week, Democratic Sens. Ben Nelson, Mary Landrieu, Ron Wyden, and Joe Lieberman sent a letter to the Senate leadership asking for more time to consider the proposals. But since these changes have been coming for six decades and the president’s plan has been in the works for six months, there is no more time.

I understand Democrats aren’t used to winning, so they don’t know what to do with the power the voters gave them last November. But these four senators can rest assured that there is no risk in voting with the guy whose promise to reform our healthcare system helped win the election in a landslide — and whose coattails were long enough to carry their party to control of Congress. When they add that to the 54 percent of people who support the plan, the 10 percent of people who only oppose it “somewhat,” and the 3 percent margin of error in the new Washington Post-ABC poll, they’ve got as many as two-out-of-three people on their side and a mandate to reform the system.

The sticking point, as always, is money. Insuring those 47 million people will run an additional $1 trillion — pushing our healthcare bill over the next 10 years to about $36 trillion — and these shaky senators are afraid to vote for the tax increases we’ll need to cover the cost. They don’t realize that even if we do nothing and leave millions of people to continue to fend for themselves in emergency rooms and urgent care facilities, our healthcare costs over the next decade will still be in the neighborhood of $35 trillion. And we will be no closer to solving the problem.

The alternative is for these four horsemen of the uninsured apocalypse to support the president’s plan to basically spend $1.03 for every $1.00 worth of health care we get for the next 10 years in order to ensure that 97 percent of us are covered. It might be tough to go back to Nebraska, Louisiana, Oregon, and Connecticut and tell the top 6 percent of income earners that they’ll be paying slightly higher taxes, but nothing worth doing is ever easy. And I seriously doubt that anyone would try to say they can’t afford to contribute a few bucks to the national “make sure everybody’s covered and healthy” fund when they earn $25,000 per month.

But this fight isn’t about money, it’s about moving forward. It’s about progress toward a more perfect union that, by definition, requires progressive policies. We use a progressive tax code to determine the fair price each of us should pay for the right to live and work here, and there is no reason why we shouldn’t have a progressive policy to determine the fair price each of us should pay for the right to quality health care.

On a purely political level, none of these senators has anything to lose by voting for the president’s plan. The only one up for re-election next year is Wyden, and there simply aren’t enough wealthy voters who would punish him for raising their taxes to counter the legions of loyal Democrats in Oregon who would reward him for supporting the president. Landrieu owes her victory in a way-too-close race last November to the Obama wave and isn’t up for re-election until 2014. Nelson isn’t up again until 2012 and won’t face a serious challenge. And after going off the reservation last year, Lieberman had better get in line or he and Hadassah won’t be welcome anywhere this side of Tel Aviv.

The fact that there is opposition to the progressive policies that move our society forward is no reason not to pass them. Progressives give us safety nets like Social Security and Medicare, and conservatives let us know when they’ve grown too big. Meanwhile, everyone’s standard of living improves. That’s progress.

Kenny Mack is a multi-platform content provider with four-quadrant crossover appeal living in Santa Monica. His past columns are archived at www.ifyoumissedit.com and he can be reached at kennymack@gmail.com.