By Richard Morin and Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, April 26, 2005
As the Senate moves toward a major confrontation over judicial appointments, a strong majority of Americans oppose changing the rules to make it easier for Republican leaders to win confirmation of President Bush's court nominees, according to the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll.
GOP leaders are threatening a rule change to prohibit the use of filibusters to block judicial nominees and have stepped up their criticism of the Democrats for using the tactic on some of Bush's nominees to the federal appellate courts. They say they are prepared to invoke what has become known as the "nuclear option" to ensure that Bush's nominees receive an up-or-down vote on the Senate floor.
But by a 2 to 1 ratio, the public rejected easing Senate rules in a way that would make it harder for Democratic senators to prevent final action on Bush's nominees. Even many Republicans were reluctant to abandon current Senate confirmation procedures: Nearly half opposed any rule changes, joining eight in 10 Democrats and seven in 10 political independents, the poll found.
The wide-ranging survey also recorded a precipitous decline in support for the centerpiece of Bush's Social Security plan -- private or personal accounts -- despite the fact that the president and other administration officials have been stumping the country in a 60-day blitz to mobilize support. The Post-ABC poll found that a bare majority -- 51 percent -- opposed such accounts, while 45 percent supported them.
The poll also registered drops in key Bush performance ratings, growing pessimism about the economy and continuing concern about U.S. involvement in Iraq.
On the issue that has consumed the capital's political community this spring, four in 10 said that House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas, under fire for alleged ethics violations, should resign his leadership post, while a third of the public said he should remain in his job. Among the 36 percent who said they have been following the allegations against DeLay, nearly two in three said DeLay should step down.
Taken together, the findings suggest that Bush is off to a difficult start in his second term, with Democrats far less willing to accommodate him and his agenda than his reelection victory last November may have foreshadowed. Beyond that, the survey highlights the divisions within the Republican Party, whether that involves Bush's signature Social Security proposal or the intersection of religion and politics that has become a defining characteristic of today's GOP.
A total of 1,007 randomly selected adults were interviewed by telephone April 21-24 for this Post-ABC News poll. The margin of sampling error for the overall results is plus or minus three percentage points.
The survey found that Bush's overall job approval rating stood at 47 percent, matching his all-time low in Post-ABC News polls. Half disapproved of the job he is doing as president.
On several other key measures of performance, Bush's standing with the public was at or near new lows, with less than half the public supporting the way the president is handling the economy, energy policy and Iraq. Four in 10 approved of Bush's handling of the economy, down six points since the start of the year. Slightly more than a third of the public approved of Bush's energy policies, and Americans were more inclined to blame the president rather than oil companies or other countries for soaring gasoline prices.
Just over four in 10 -- 42 percent -- endorsed the way the president is dealing with the situation in Iraq, a slight increase from the all-time low in March of 39 percent. Almost six in 10 (58 percent) said the United States has gotten bogged down there, and 39 percent said they are confident Iraq will have a stable, democratic government in a year.
Bush continues to get strong marks on his handling of the campaign against terrorism, with 56 percent supporting his actions, down five points since January. But the survey also found that the sluggish economy has eclipsed terrorism on the public's list of top priorities, fueling Bush's drop in the polls.
A third of those interviewed (32 percent) said the economy should be the highest priority for the administration and Congress, up five points in the past month, followed by Iraq (22 percent) and health care (15 percent). Only 12 percent cited terrorism as the top issue, down five points since March.
The biggest changes in opinion came on Social Security, which Bush has made the principal domestic priority of his second term. Three in 10 (31 percent) approved of the job Bush is doing on Social Security, while 64 percent disapproved, an eight-point increase in disapproval in a month. Only a third said they trust Bush more than the Democrats to handle the Social Security issue, a new low for the president.
In little more than a month, there has been a double-digit shift in sentiment. In mid-March, 56 percent favored private accounts, compared with 45 percent in the latest poll, which marked the first time in Post-ABC News polling that less than half of the public supported allowing workers to invest some of their Social Security contributions in the stock market.
The decline in support was widespread. The poll found that support among Republicans fell by nine percentage points, among Democrats by 10 percentage points and among political independents by 12 percentage points.
Neither party is held completely blameless in the increasingly acrimonious Senate battle over judgeships, with only four in 10 saying they approved of the way Democrats or Republicans were handling the confirmation process. But other findings suggested that Senate GOP leaders risk alienating the public over their efforts to circumvent opposition to nominees who Democrats say are far too conservative.
So far, the Senate has confirmed 35 federal appeals court judges nominated by Bush, while Senate Democrats have blocked 10 others by threatening to filibuster. According to the poll, nearly half of the public said Democrats are right to block the 10 contested Bush appointees, while slightly more than a third said they are wrong.
Religious and ideological splits are now at the center of the debate over judicial appointments, and the survey found that the deep partisan divide is matched by large differences over the proper role of religion in politics. For example, more than six in 10 Republicans said they think political leaders should rely on their religious beliefs in making policy decisions, while an equally large proportion of Democrats disagreed.
Four in 10 Americans said they think religious conservatives play too large a role in the Republican Party, a view shared by about half of all Democrats and independents but only one in five Republicans. Conversely, nearly as many Americans (35 percent) said liberals have too much influence over the Democratic Party, a view held by nearly six in 10 Republicans.
Assistant polling director Claudia Deane contributed to this report.