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Poll sees a new low in Americans’ approval of Congress

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After nine months of contentious battles on Capitol Hill, Americans have reached a new level of disgust toward Congress that has left nearly all voters angry at their leaders and doubtful that they can fix the problems facing the country.

Whether Republican, Democrat or independent, more Americans disapprove of Congress than at any point in more than two decades of Washington Post-ABC News polling.

Just 14 percent of the public approves of the job Congress is doing, according to the latest poll. That is lower than just before the 1994, 2006 and 2010 elections, when the majority party was on the verge of losing power in the House.

For most it’s not just a casual dislike of Congress: Sixty-two percent say they “strongly disapprove” of congressional job performance. An additional 20 percent “somewhat” disapprove.

Only 3 percent of Americans said they “strongly approve” of the performance of lawmakers on Capitol Hill — essentially as low as possible, given the poll’s margin of error of four percentage points.

With Democrats running the Senate and Republicans in charge of the House, no group of voters is pleased. Just 18 percent of Democrats, 13 percent of independents and 13 percent of Republicans approve of Congress.

“Government right now, it’s so separated and so divided,” said Jason DeMello, 37, a registered Democrat in Haverhill, Mass. “As a normal, average American, it’s discouraging that these are the people leading the country.”

DeMello said he voted for Barack Obama and believes that the president needs more time to make the changes he promised, but he is losing faith in Congress.

“I remember when 9/11, that unfortunate day, you saw all the American flags hanging on houses,” he said. “And it went away. It went away so quickly. Where’s the patriotism? Everyone is out to bicker and argue instead of coming together.”

Aaron Grady, 18, of Slidell, La., said that “Congress is pretty hit-and-miss with me. A lot of the things they do are not right. And they get some things done that I can agree with.”

Grady, who is unemployed, did not name specific things that pleased or displeased him.

The public distaste for Congress follows a prolonged fight in July and August over increasing the government’s ability to borrow money. As part of a deal to raise the debt ceiling, lawmakers agreed to find at least $1.2 trillion in savings or else have a comparable amount of cuts automatically made to domestic and defense spending over the next decade. A special bipartisan congressional committee is tasked with finding those savings.

That complicated arrangement, after months of private negotiations and public disputes, has left both Congress and the president politically wounded.

Obama’s overall approval rating slipped from 47 percent before the debt-ceiling debate to 42 percent now, with 54 percent disapproving of his job performance. A record low 35 percent approve of Obama’s handling of the economy.

But the president’s new jobs package, which is supported by a narrow majority of the public, has bolstered his position on the issue. He now holds a 49 to 34 percent advantage over congressional Republicans when it comes to the public’s trust on creating jobs. That is a change from September, when they were evenly split at 40 percent each.

Some Republicans said the comparison between their leaders and the president would not matter once the GOP has a presidential nominee. “I don’t think congressional approval has a whole lot of relevance,” said Sen. John Cornyn (Tex.), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Democrats saw the latest findings as a call for bipartisan action and compromise, particularly on the deficit-reduction supercommittee.

“It underscores the importance of this committee reaching a successful conclusion in a bipartisan agreement,” Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), a member of the panel, said Tuesday. Asked if such a deal was possible, Van Hollen shrugged. “We’re trying,” he said.

Overall, though, the nation’s distaste for the political system is cresting, after rapidly rising in the wake of this summer’s contentious debt-ceiling debate. Congressional approval has been cut in half since March and stands below 20 percent for the first time since October 1994, just before Republicans ended four decades of Democratic rule in the House.

Almost eight in 10 adults are unhappy with the country’s political system, with four in 10 “very dissatisfied.” The dour assessment carries over to the supercommittee, charged with crafting a deal to cut the deficit by Nov. 23: Roughly three-quarters of Americans say it’s unlikely that Democrats and Republicans in Congress will agree on a deficit-reduction plan.

Compounding the problem is that majorities in virtually all demographic and political groups oppose the automatic cuts to military and domestic spending should the committee fail to pass a bill.  

As Obama and Republicans spar over how the supercommittee should cut the deficit, more than six in 10 adults in the poll support a combination of spending cuts and taxes, while about three in 10 prefer spending cuts alone.

Obama’s proposal to raise taxes on millionaires to help close the deficit enjoys wide public support — three-quarters of adults, including majorities of independents, moderates, conservatives and Republicans, back it.

Among the few groups that don’t favor such tax increases are Republicans who strongly support the tea party movement; they oppose the proposal by more than two to one.

Polling director Jon Cohen, polling manager Peyton M. Craighill and staff writer Rosalind S. Helderman contributed to this report.

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