- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 20, 2007

Americans are giving the Democratic-run Congress failing grades after five months of bickering and stalemate that have stalled or killed their chief legislative priorities.

The Democrats’ latest report card came last week in a Gallup Poll that showed their job-approval ratings had sunk to 29 percent, several points below even President Bush’s low job-approval numbers, which Gallup said were “holding steady” at 33 percent since April.

Democratic strategists and independent pollsters say their party will pay a political price in next year’s elections if they cannot show the American people they can do the nation’s business. But as Democrats near the midway point in this first session of Congress, the prospects that anything on their must-pass list of domestic legislation will be enacted appear bleak.

An Associated Press survey reinforced Gallup’s numbers, showing the Democrats’ job-approval numbers had fallen 5 points in the last month alone. Leon Panetta, chief of staff in the Clinton White House, warned that his party will suffer in 2008, if its members cannot “show they can govern.”

“What people are seeing is gridlock and dashed hope for the new Congress. Voters are telling us they want the people’s business done. They want solutions and cooperation,” pollster John Zogby told me. “What you are seeing [in the job-approval polls] is less ideology and partisanship among the mainstream public, and this could hurt Democrats as much as it hurt the Republicans seven months ago,” he continued. “Twenty-nine percent is not bragging rights.”

Democrats took control of Congress promising swift action on a broad range of reform proposals that included raising the minimum wage, cutting student-loan interest rates, negotiating lower Medicare drug prices, funding for stem-cell research and approving the September 11 Commission’s remaining homeland-security recommendations.

To date, none of these have been enacted, falling victim to a failure by the House Democrats to compromise on their demands or gridlock in the Senate, where Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid seems incapable of moving any legislation through that chamber, despite a 51-seat majority.

Democratic officials say the fault lies with Republicans. “Obstructionist Republicans blocking America’s priorities are bound to impact the numbers,” said Karen Finney, the Democratic National Committee’s communications director.

But Democrats control the legislative calendars in both chambers and the committees that produce all the bills. They are fully in charge of the machinery and have sole responsibility over its operation.

Public perceptions are everything in congressional politics, and the voters see a Congress more interested in grilling administration officials in politicized hearings in an effort to embarrass the White House and ambush senior Bush advisers.

The dubious House and Senate hearings into the dismissal of eight U.S. attorneys have found no wrongdoing, but they continue in a vain and obsessive effort to bring down Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and presidential adviser Karl Rove.

Did the American people put the Democrats in power to conduct an inquisition to set the stage for next year’s presidential election, or did they vote for a change in legislative leadership to tackle much needed domestic reforms?

There are a number of reforms that could easily become law with the right leadership in place.

Most Democrats and Republicans want to make the bulk of President Bush’s tax cuts permanent for low- and middle-income Americans, including the family child credit, ending the marriage penalty and the capital-gains-dividend tax reductions. By itself, this could pass both houses tomorrow.

There is certainly a majority in Congress for a bill that fixes the illegal-immigration problem and toughens border security but also allows for legal temporary workers who are needed in a growing, dynamic economy.

To be sure, the Iraq war has dominated much, if not most, of Congress’ time. But Democrats have little to show for all their sound and fury over tying a withdrawal deadline to an emergency military-funding bill to protect our troops in harm’s way. Even senior House and Senate Democratic leaders, including House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland, have voted against setting a specific pullout timeline.

All this has soured the public’s perception about the Democrats’ job performance. And since they are clearly in charge now, the Democrats are the ones to blame for the current state of gridlock.

Their declining job-approval numbers are especially bad in key swing states that will be critical in their attempts next year to keep their majority. For example: A May 11-13 poll of likely voters by Strategic Vision, an Atlanta, Ga., polling firm, revealed very low job-approval marks for the Democrats in Florida.

“Twenty-seven percent approved, and 61 percent disapproved. There’s a feeling that Bush is not to blame for everything that is going on,” said Strategic Vision pollster David Johnson.

“If they are at the same job-approval level a year from now, it will create some real challenges for Democratic control of Congress” after 2008, said Republican pollster Whit Ayres.

Indeed, it will.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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