It has been nearly four years since even 30 percent expressed approval of Congress, according to the Post-ABC survey, and support hasn’t recovered from the historic low it reached last fall.
In the face of the public dismay, House Republicans and Senate Democrats are fashioning less far-reaching agendas for the year ahead, in part to avoid the bitter political showdowns of 2011 and also to best position themselves for the fall elections.
Because of reelection politics, the second session for any Congress is traditionally less ambitious than the first because lawmakers are campaigning and therefore generally spend less time in Washington. This year’s legislative business, however, will take place in the shadow of $5 trillion in deficit reduction achieved through tax increases and spending cuts that are scheduled to take effect next Jan. 1 . The move was triggered by an unsuccessful effort by a congressional “supercommittee” last fall to reach a compromise on the federal deficit and expiring George W. Bush-era tax cuts.
The expectation is that fiscal issues will again be the central battleground in the presidential and congressional elections. If voters clearly embrace one party’s position over the other’s, it could tilt negotiations on a broader tax-and-spending deal in a lame-duck session after the elections or in early 2013.
In the meantime, with the House reconvening on Tuesday and the Senate returning next week, Congress is poised to resume a series of smaller skirmishes on provisions that were temporarily extended into the new year.
Most prominent among them is President Obama’s proposal to extend a payroll tax holiday for workers through this year, an issue that hamstrung House Republicans before the holidays.
Rather than agreeing on a full-year extension, Congress reached accord only on enough offsetting spending cuts to extend the tax holiday until Feb. 29. Democrats say that puts them in the driver’s seat at the start of the new session by allowing them to resume a debate that divided Republicans, many of whom opposed the provision. Senate Democrats also hope to repeatedly push smaller-bore items focusing narrowly on particular sectors, such as highway and school construction, that would either lead to bipartisan deals or demonstrate Republican obstruction to their agenda.
“The issues that are most salient in 2012 — jobs, helping the middle class, income inequality — are much better for Democrats than last year. Overall, this is going to be a much better year for us,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.), the No. 3 Democratic leader.