Congress returns, unpopular as well as divided

By David Espo

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, Sept. 3 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

FILE - In this Sept. 9, 2009, file photo President Barack Obama is seen on a television monitor in the hallway of the U.S. Capitol as he addresses a Joint Session of Congress in Washington. Congress returns to work this coming week after a five-week break with Republican and Democratic leaders promising action to try and ease the country's 9.1 percent unemployment rate and boost a barely growing economy. Obama goes first on Thursday night, Sept. 8, 2011, with a speech to lawmakers and a prime time national television audience.

Gerald Herbert, File, Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Congress returns to work this coming week, divided over measures to create jobs and scorned by the nation it was elected to help lead.

After a five-week break, Republican and Democratic leaders alike promise action to try and ease the country's 9.1 percent unemployment rate and boost an economy that is barely growing. President Barack Obama goes first on Thursday night with a speech to lawmakers and a prime-time national television audience.

But there is little overlap so far in the measures that Republicans and Democrats are recommending, and the rest of the year-end congressional agenda is top-heavy with items that relate to government spending and less directly to job creation.

A new committee, comprised of lawmakers in both parties from both houses and armed with extraordinary powers, is expected to hold its first meeting this week as it begins work on a plan to make long-term deficit cuts. The panel was created as part of last month's agreement to reduce red ink and avert a government default. It faces a Nov. 23 deadline for action.

More immediately, parts of the Federal Aviation Administration will shut down on Sept. 16 unless Congress approves a measure to keep operations running. Federal money for highway construction jobs runs out two weeks later without separate legislation.

The Obama administration is seeking more money for disaster relief in the wake of Hurricane Irene, and a partial government shutdown would occur on Oct. 1 unless lawmakers enact an interim spending bill to cover most federal agencies.

With any or all of these measures, there is an opportunity for partisan gridlock or compromise, and it isn't entirely clear which an unhappy public might prefer.

In a late-August Associated Press-GfK poll, only 12 percent of those surveyed said they approved of the job Congress is doing, and 87 percent disapproved. A separate Gallup survey, taken in midmonth, found 13 percent approved and 84 percent disapproved.

"Everybody is kind of in trouble with the electorate," said Republican pollster Bill McInturff. He recently distributed an analysis that concluded the negotiating surrounding last month's agreement to avoid a default is an extremely significant event that is profoundly and sharply reshaping views of the economy and the federal government.

"It has led to a scary erosion in confidence in both, at a time when this steep drop in confidence can be least afforded."

But if the public was offended by the bickering before the deal, there isn't there much evidence that the compromise on the nation's borrowing limit did much, if anything, to restore confidence in Congress' ability to address economic problems.

A Fox News poll last month showed opinion was split on the compromise, with Republicans overwhelmingly opposed, independents solidly so and Democrats narrowly in favor. But even those statistics masked a deeper divide.

Based on other surveys, McInturff said, "Republicans disapprove because some didn't think we should have raised the debt ceiling at all ... and others because they believe there should have been substantially more spending cuts than what was in the debt-ceiling vote."

Independents who disliked the compromise tended to say they wanted deeper deficit reductions. Democrats who disapprove did so because "they can't believe the president is negotiating doing this much with the Republicans," he said, which is a far different reason from the one GOP voters cite.

The Fox News survey showed a similar breakdown.

Republicans and Democrats offer different assessments of the state of congressional approval.

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