WASHINGTON — Congress' job approval ratings were already dismal — 13 percent in one national poll said lawmakers were doing a good or excellent job — and its inability to act on the nation's most pressing issues last week before taking a 10-day holiday break hasn't helped.
Congress left Washington Friday for its traditional Memorial Day recess without acting to extend jobless benefits for hundreds of thousands of workers that are due to expire on Wednesday, five days before lawmakers return.
Also left for later was the matter of how to pay for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, as well as providing funds to help respond to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. The Senate passed a $58.8 billion measure, but the House of Representatives put off action until it returns.
These latest displays of inertia and delay are hardly novelties.
Earlier this year, Congress ended a bitter, yearlong struggle over health care that became so mired in procedural chaos that the Senate took its first Christmas Eve vote in 114 years. Then it missed two other deadlines for extending jobless benefits, and despite trillion dollar-plus federal deficits, lawmakers ignored the April 15 deadline for writing next year's budget and still aren't even close to cleaning up that mess.
All this is likely to mean that constituents' already sinking confidence in their federal legislators threatens to sink even further — an ominous sign for lawmakers who must face the voters in less than six months.
"They think all we do here is play games," lamented Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb.
It clearly is getting harder to explain back home why things don't seem to get done in Washington.
"We can say the Senate is to blame, but people don't care if it's the Senate or the House that's not acting. They only know Congress," said Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas.
The official reason that Congress left Washington in knots again is the ever-deepening schism between those who consider the wars and the economy true emergencies — and therefore deserving of more spending — and those who want any additional spending offset by budget cuts or, in some cases, higher taxes.
Many Democrats eagerly point their fingers at Republicans, saying the GOP created the deficit mess, plunged the economy into chaos and started two wars, or at least the one in Iraq, so it's hypocritical for Republicans to start demanding fiscal responsibility.
"The deficit facing this country was created primarily by the last administration," said House Rules Committee Chairman Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y. During President George W. Bush's presidency, she said, the White House and a GOP-led Congress "started two wars, passed a prescription drug plan and wrote a huge package of tax cuts for the rich — all of which was unpaid for."
She's right — though many Democrats also voted for those wars, for the Medicare drug plan (and this year led the effort to expand it) and for the tax cuts, and had congressional majorities part of the time. However, as Cuellar noted, constituents don't reach back to history when evaluating their current members of Congress.
"The concerns I get are deficit, deficit, deficit," he said. "They may say that President Bush pushed up the deficit, but they still want something done now. They understand the problem."
With elections less than six months away, moderate Democrats are getting nervous. Earlier this month, Democratic leaders confidently predicted that their nearly $200 billion package of extended jobless benefits and other economic boosters would be done by now.
Instead, centrists balked at the price tag, and after a week of tense negotiations that resulted in a dramatically pared-down bill, 34 House Democrats still voted against the plan and the Senate left without acting — and without predicting when it could reach an agreement.
To constituents, said Cuellar (who backed the plan) and others, the deficit and the frustrating struggle to tame it are emblematic of an undisciplined, self-indulgent Congress.
"We've hit the wall," said Rep. Jason Altmire, D-Pa., a key moderate. "We're at the point where people back home want us to pay for social spending."
A May 13-16 Pew Research Center for the People & the Press survey found that Congress' gridlock has plunged it into a political quagmire.
The 13 percent of the public who thought Congress was doing a good or excellent job was down from 17 percent in March, when lawmakers were engaging in a political battle over health care. In a May 20-23 Pew survey, 42 percent said they were more likely to vote for a candidate who's willing to compromise with those he or she disagrees with.
In the current congressional climate, though, that's going to be tough, and it's going to be just as hard to bolster lawmakers' image in time for the November election.
No single development has sent Congress' rating dropping, said Carroll Doherty, Pew associate director, editorial, and such long-term views are hard to reverse quickly.
"There have been accomplishments in Congress this year," said Doherty, "but the perception is otherwise."
With congressional elections in less than six months and incumbents such as Sens. Robert Bennett, R-Utah, and Arlen Specter, D-Pa., already toppled, "Our guys are understandably nervous," said Pennsylvania Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell.
There's no consensus, however, on how to proceed. Moderate Democrats are urging leaders to stop floating big proposals like the original jobless plan — a package that once cost nearly $200 billion — and propose what's likely to get consensus. Liberals such as Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., however, think Democrats are running scared too often.
"We're thinking too small," he said. Pass legislation that sticks to long-held principles and let the voters decide, instead of looking for so much common ground that it seems to take forever to do the smallest tasks.
"We're going about this the wrong way," he said.
Public attitudes won't shift quickly. Perceptions about Congress have become so ingrained that even when the system runs smoothly, public attitudes don't seem to shift.
Earlier this month, during part of the period when Pew was polling, the Senate debated and eventually passed, with almost no rancor and some bipartisan support, the most sweeping overhaul of the nation's financial regulatory system in decades.
Any good feeling was quickly swept away last week, however, and nothing's scheduled to get done until the week of June 7 — and on that day, the Senate has scheduled no votes until 5:30 p.m. and plans to vote only on three judicial nominations.
While Congress plods along, Rendell and others said, the public, impatient with its maneuvering, sees politicians who are unable to deal with one of the day's most crucial issues.
"There's a lot of confusion among the public," Rendell said. "We have to do a better job explaining things."
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