Congress returns, unpopular as well as divided
WASHINGTON (AP) — 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.
"I'm not the least bit surprised that the rating of Congress is abysmal. If we could do the work that we are supposed to be doing in a reasonable and timely way," it would improve, said Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., a first-termer who is a member of the committee charged with finding $1.2 billion or more in deficit reductions.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., had a somewhat different view, telling an audience in his home state: "Everyone complain all you want about Congress. You should complain plenty. But don't think the country is about to fall apart because of what's going on in Washington."
Already, the differences are evident as Obama and congressional leaders ready job creation plans.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., recently distributed a list of "Top 10 Job-Destroying Regulations" and said the Republican majority would begin voting this month to block them one by one.
Most, including one that Obama ordered scrapped Friday, deal with pollution limits for a variety of industries; two would curtail National Labor Relations Board actions opposed by business.
Separately, Cantor wrote, the House will "pursue tax relief designed to help American employers create middle-class jobs."
Obama, too, is considering tax breaks to provide businesses to hire new employees. He also is expected to call for new spending on construction projects, and to seek an extension of jobless benefits and a temporary payroll tax cut that is due to expire Dec. 31.
To offset those costs, the president is expected to challenge lawmakers on the debt-reduction committee to go beyond its minimum goal of $1.2 trillion in long-term savings.
The panel marks the latest and possibly the last attempt of the year to forge a sweeping agreement that can cut trillions from future deficits. Congress must approve $1.2 trillion in deficit cuts to block across-the-board spending cuts that both sides say they would like to avoid.
There are expressions of optimism, but so far, none of outright success.
Reid put the prospects of a compromise at 50-50.
Toomey said he was "cautiously optimistic."
"We know how difficult this task is going to be, and I am heartened by the strong encouragement I have gotten from my constituents and my colleagues on both sides of the aisle," Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., said Friday in a written statement. "We'll begin by identifying those areas where we have common ground, and we are ready to roll up our sleeves and get to work."