Congress puts on smiley face in bid to curry public favor

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 16, 2011 

WASHINGTON — Sniping and snide remarks are out on Capitol Hill. Being nice — and seeking common ground, or at least appearing to — is suddenly in.

Since returning from their summer recess earlier this month, lawmakers have heeded the strong message from an infuriated public: Stop squabbling, fix the economy and act like adults.

While this new era of good feeling doesn't necessarily mean compromise on big economic issues is imminent, this much is clear:

"I think the polling data got their attention," said John Pitney, a professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College in California and the author of "The Art of Political Warfare."

The data show that Congress' approval ratings remain dismal. A Sept. 8-11 Gallup poll found only 15 percent of the public approved of how Congress was doing its job, while 82 percent disapproved. The margin of error was 4 percentage points.

Nothing frightens politicians like numbers that low, especially when the economy remains sluggish, consumer confidence is bleak and businesses are reluctant to hire.

"I think GOP leaders, at least, see that jobs and the economy are going into the tank," said Burdett Loomis, a professor of political science at the University of Kansas and the author of several books about Congress.

"They see the possibility that obstructing the Obama proposals, or at least appearing not to negotiate in good faith, might cost them politically."

They know well how fast an angry public can turn on a political party; last year, Republicans took control of the House of Representatives as 87 GOP freshmen won seats. And with the nation's unemployment rate at 9.1 percent and the economy barely growing, incumbents of both parties see themselves as vulnerable.

Republican pollster Bill McInturff found that public disgust with the summer debt-ceiling debacle had eroded confidence in the economy and the federal government profoundly, on a scale similar to the 9/11 terrorist attacks and Hurricane Katrina. That, McInturff warned in an analysis earlier this month, could lead to "unstable and unpredictable political outcomes" in next year's elections.

Still, the outlook remains murky on the fate of this fall's two major initiatives: President Barack Obama's $447 billion jobs initiative and the bipartisan supercommittee's effort to cut budget deficits by at least $1.2 trillion over the next 10 years.

Friday, House Republican leaders sent their House GOP colleagues a long memo detailing their views of the jobs plan. "We believe there are areas of common agreement, and areas worthy of further conversation where agreement — assuming there are good faith discussions — may be possible," they said.

Rank-and-file members of both parties, though, are only cautiously optimistic.

"We really don't know what's going to happen," said Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., a key moderate.

But at least the rhetoric is far less hostile than it was during July and early August, when lawmakers from the two parties clashed bitterly over raising the debt ceiling.

Most notably, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., who stalked out of bipartisan debt deal talks in June and later engaged in a heated exchange with Obama, has softened his tone.

"The rancor in this town over the last six months or so has proven that (bitter debate) doesn't necessarily produce the kind of result we want," Cantor said earlier this week. "Let us all try and take a breather, and focus on what we can do together, try and lower the volume of rancor here and see if we can get along."

The change in tone could signal a change in substance as well.

Last month, a dispute over Federal Aviation Administration funding led to a partial shutdown of agency operations. This week, the Senate overwhelmingly approved extending the programs through January. The House already approved it, so it goes next to Obama for his signature.

Next week, Congress plans to consider a measure to fund the government through Nov. 18. The current fiscal year ends Sept. 30. Unless new spending is approved, agencies could shut down. Disputes over funding nearly caused a shutdown last spring. This time, the only major disagreement involves paying for disaster aid. Partisan brinksmanship appears unlikely. Lawmakers hope to pass the legislation by next Friday and recess the week of Sept. 26.

The bigger challenges, though, will be thornier.

Obama is expected to detail his long-term debt-reduction program Monday, and he's expected to call for higher taxes. The supercommittee plans to hear testimony on tax policy Thursday at its next public meeting.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, in an address Thursday to the Economic Club of Washington, issued a no-higher-tax warning. While revamping the tax code could be a goal, he said, "Tax increases, however, are not a viable option for the joint committee. It's a very simple equation. Tax increases destroy jobs."

He cushioned his rhetoric, however, with a call for comity.

"Some of the president's proposals offer opportunities for common ground," he said. Later, responding to questions, he talked of how he personally likes Obama.

Republican leaders also warned against higher taxes in the president's jobs package, which Congress could act on next month. Obama has proposed cutting Social Security taxes sharply for employees and most employers, while raising $400 billion by limiting itemized deductions for wealthier taxpayers over the next 10 years.

"We don't question the president's sincerity when he says he has crafted the right prescription for economic recovery," House Republican leaders said in Friday's memo. But, they added, "To be clear, we don't agree with portions of President Obama's proposal, and Republicans have a different vision for the steps that need to be taken to help our economy get back to creating jobs."

The leaders listed areas where "it will be harder to find common ground," notably the tax increases. But they also listed several "areas of potential common agreement and areas worthy of further discussion," including infrastructure spending, payroll tax cuts, changes in the unemployment system and free-trade agreements.

Higher taxes are not acceptable, Republicans say.

"I don't see how the bill gets to the finish line as he is proposing it," said Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb.

It's unclear where common ground may be found; few offer specifics. But there is a genuine hope that compromise is possible — eventually.

"This is Washington," Boehner said. The supercommittee is to submit its recommendations by Nov. 23, and the speaker said with a chuckle that he expected those proposals "closer to Nov. 23 than Nov. 22."

The politicians know that the public is watching.

"People have been complaining about the tone of the debate in Congress since the beginning," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas. "But now we have the social media, and it's pervasive. It's hard to escape from it."

ON THE WEB

Gallup poll on Congress

White House information on jobs plan

Congressional Budget Office analysis of debt reduction plan

Treasury Department debt report

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