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Public view of Congress improves, but a majority still disapprove

WASHINGTON — Three months after a power shifting election, a majority of Americans still disapprove of Congress — a sign of public impatience with the new Democratic majority even among party loyalists.
    Still, an Associated Press-Ipsos poll conducted this week shows that Congress’ public image has improved slowly but steadily since the November elections when Iraq, corruption and partisan fighting drove congressional approval ratings below those of President Bush.
    According to the poll, 65 percent of those surveyed disapprove of the way the president is handling his job, slightly up from his disapproval ratings last month. As for Congress, 58 percent disapproved of the work of lawmakers, a slight decrease from last month and a 14 percentage-point decrease from congressional disapproval last October.
    Democrats ran on a message of changing the country’s direction on the war and domestic policies, but Congress is still trying to find its voice on Iraq and legislation at the top of the Democratic agenda has yet to make its way through the Capitol and to the president’s desk.
    Even a majority of Democrats — 52 percent — disapprove of the work of Congress, indicating a desire for quicker action from the new Democratic management. Just 39 percent of Democrats approved of Congress, though that rating is a significant improvement from the 9 percent who approved in October.
    ‘‘They are caught in a Catch-22, because Iraq is the thing that’s on most people’s minds and it has to be dealt with, and it leaves very little time and energy to do anything else,’’ said Diane Bania of Clifton, N.J., who described herself as somewhat liberal and leaning Democrat.
    Added Eleanore Putman, 86, of Deltona, Fla.: ‘‘The Democrats, right now, don’t seem to be progressing well. They don’t agree on much. I’m disappointed they don’t immediately stop the troops from going to Iraq that Bush wants. I can’t conceive that they would just sit there and talk.’’
    The poll of 1,000 adults was conducted Feb. 5-7. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
    The modest bounce in congressional approval is similar to that experienced by lawmakers after the 1994 elections that put Republicans in control of Congress.
    Before the November 1994 elections, 23 percent approved of Congress, according to the Gallup Poll. Approval for Congress jumped to 33 percent in January, then 38 percent the following month before it stalled. Back then, the House quickly passed a number top Republican priorities only to see most of them die in the Senate.
    The unease over the current Congress is also evident with some lawmakers, particularly those who were just elected on a message of change.
    ‘‘It’s going to take a lot more than a few weeks to show them that we are serious or that we are capable of making change,’’ said Sen. Claire McCaskill, a newly elected Democrat from Missouri. ‘‘This is not the easiest place in the world to make change happen, and all of us who are new are kind of shaking our heads.’’
    Senate Democrats and a handful of Republicans have been prepared for a week to vote on a nonbinding resolution opposing Bush’s troop-boosting plan in Iraq. But Republicans blocked an attempt to move to the resolution and Republicans and Democratic leaders have been unable to agree on how to proceed to a vote. The House is expected to take up a resolution against the troop increase next week.
    Meanwhile, the House in January moved swiftly through legislation that increased the minimum wage, lowered rates on certain tuition loans, expanded embryonic stem cell research, eliminated tax subsidies for oil companies and required the government to negotiate lower drug prices under Medicare. But that legislation is pending in the Senate, which traditionally moves at a more deliberate pace.
    Republicans have 49 of the 100 seats in the Senate, giving them the numbers to block legislation unless Democrats can line up 60 votes to remove procedural obstacles. The 60-vote margin has so far caused delays in Senate action on Iraq and forced the Senate to include tax breaks in minimum wage legislation, thus forcing negotiations with the House.
    Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., saw reason to cheer the poll results, noting ‘‘a nice uptick about how people feel about Congress.’’
    ‘‘What the House has done, what we’re doing to catch up with them ... I think it’s looking good,’’ he said. He pointed to movement on ethics legislation and the minimum wage. And, he offered, ‘‘At least we’re talking in a public fashion about Iraq. So I feel pretty good about how things are going.’’
    Rep. John Larson of Connecticut, a member of the House Democratic leadership, said he understood the public’s frustration, particularly after seeing prompt action in the House on domestic legislation, but not on Iraq.
    ‘‘The average American is saying, why can’t they just end this,’’ he said. ‘‘The overall process, by its very structural nature, moves slowly. What the public is going to look for is persistence.’’
    Bush’s approval rating matched his lowest yet at 32 percent, with most of the disapproval aimed at his handling of the war in Iraq, the poll found. Whereas 55 percent disapproved of his handling of the economy, and 61 percent disapproved of his work on foreign policy and the war on terrorism, 67 percent opposed his handling of the war.
    The poll shows that Bush got little or no benefit from his State of the Union speech last month when he outlined a domestic agenda on health care and energy and defended his call for more troops in Iraq.
    ———
    Associated Press Writers Ann Sanner and Natasha Metzler and AP Manager of News Surveys Trevor Tompson contributed to this report.

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