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Poll gives Congress mixed grades

Most respondents say Democrats have failed to provide a clear new national direction. But their bills have support.

January 19, 2007|Janet Hook | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — A bipartisan majority of Americans strongly supports the bills that whisked through the House in the first days of the Democratic-controlled Congress, but many remain uncertain about where the party wants to lead the nation, a new Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll has found.

Approval of Congress has increased since the midterm elections ousted Republicans from their House and Senate majorities, and Democrats are viewed in a more positive light after two weeks in power, according to the survey.

But only 25% of those surveyed believed Democrats have formulated a clear direction for the country; 58% said they had failed to.

Those results amount to a mixed report card on the much-ballyhooed "100-hour" agenda House Democrats set for themselves as they took power.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday January 22, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 51 words Type of Material: Correction
Times/Bloomberg poll: A graphic accompanying an article in Friday's Section A about a poll on Congress and the economy said one question -- "Do you support or oppose the following proposals that are currently being considered in Congress?" -- was asked of all voters. It was asked of all poll respondents.

They made a strong start with House passage of some broadly popular bills, such as an increase in the minimum wage and a cut in student-loan rates, which passed with significant Republican support. It was a rare display of bipartisanship after years of the party-line splits that marked GOP control.

'So far, so good'

But the survey underscores that Democrats still have much to prove to voters as the Senate debates these bills and lawmakers in both chambers turn to more divisive issues, such as the federal budget, global warming and Iraq.

Overall, the poll found 36% approve of how Congress is doing its job -- hardly a mandate, but up from 30% in September.

"So far, so good," said Hildegard Wharton, a retiree in Wooster, Ohio, who responded to the poll.

Wharton, a Democrat, added, "I hope they do a better job than the Republicans. If they don't, they are not going to get reelected."

The Times/Bloomberg poll, supervised by Times Poll Director Susan Pinkus, surveyed 1,344 adults by telephone Saturday through Tuesday. It has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

It found that pressure is especially high for Democrats to change course in Iraq; 45% identified the war as the most important issue for the new Congress to address, a far higher figure than for any other issue.

"If they just tackle this war and get these boys home, they will be doing good," said Jerry Alexander, a retired car salesman in Savannah, Tenn., who is an independent. "They better, because that's what they were elected for."

The positive reaction among those polled to the major elements of the initial Democratic agenda ratifies the political strategy behind its design: Party leaders deliberately filled the congressional session's opening hours with issues that, for the most part, polls have found enjoyed broad bipartisan support and were likely to pass before President Bush's State of the Union address on Tuesday. One aim was to provide a contrast with the gridlock that stalled many bills during the recent years of the Republican-controlled Congress.

Legislation approved

The student-loan rate cut that passed the House on Wednesday was supported by 79% of those polled.

Legislation aimed at lowering prices in Medicare's prescription drug program, which passed the House last week, was backed by 80%.

Repealing tax breaks for big oil companies, which the House approved Thursday, was supported by 61%.

An expansion of federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, passed by the chamber last week, was backed by 59%.

The most popular item was the push to increase the federal minimum wage, which under the House bill would rise over two years to $7.25 an hour from $5.15. The increase, which would be the first in a decade, was supported by 81% of those surveyed -- including 66% of self-described conservatives.

"The minimum-wage increase was long overdue," said Susan Wilkinson, a homemaker and a Democrat who lives in Trabuco Canyon in Orange County. "It's pretty sad that it had to be even an issue to debate."

Democrats hope their early results will reinforce the judgment by voters in November that it was time for a change of control in Congress.

The new poll indicates a less critical view of congressional Democrats among the public -- although their favorable rating is virtually unchanged at 42%, compared to 40% in September; their unfavorable rating was 32%, down from 41%.

Accompanying that drop was an increase -- to 22% from 15% -- in those who said they did not know enough about congressional Democrats to judge. That suggests there is a sizable wait-and-see faction among voters.

"I just don't know how much of what they have done is going to bear any fruit," said Jim Bauder, a computer programmer in Fort Jones, Calif.

Bauder, an independent, added, "President Bush has declared he's going to veto many of the things they have passed. Is it going to be a situation where anything gets accomplished?"

Some of the early promises emanating from Washington are being viewed with skepticism.

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