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Divided Congress returns to work amid dismal public approval

By David Espo
Associated Press / September 4, 2011

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WASHINGTON - Congress returns to work this 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 ease the country’s 9.1 percent unemployment rate and boost an economy that is barely growing. President 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, composed 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 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 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 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 is not entirely clear which an unhappy public might prefer.

In a late-August Associated Press-GfK poll, 12 percent said they approved of the job Congress is doing, and 87 percent disapproved. A separate Gallup survey, taken 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 the 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 is not much evidence that the compromise 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 those statistics masked a deeper divide.

Based on other surveys, McInturff said that “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.’’

Republicans and Democrats offer different assessments.

“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 Senator Pat Toomey, Republican of Pennsylvania, a member of the committee charged with finding $1.2 billion or more in deficit reductions.

Senate majority leader Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada, had a different view, saying: “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.’’

The differences are evident as Obama and congressional leaders ready job creation plans.

House majority leader Eric Cantor, Republican of Virginia, 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.

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 encourage businesses to hire new employees.

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