Lawmakers Plan Ambitious Agenda as Voter Anger Rises

By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 21, 2006

Members of Congress will return to Washington next week to face deep challenges including a budget morass in the House and an immigration quagmire in the Senate, while new polls indicate that voters increasingly view the legislative branch as dysfunctional.

How well Republican leaders navigate their way through the legislative mess could greatly influence the outcome of the midterm elections in November, suggests a poll released yesterday by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

"The American public is angry with Congress, and this is bad news for the Republican Party," the authors of the poll concluded.

With a backdrop of skepticism and discontent, Republican leaders have laid out an ambitious agenda for the coming months, from health-care legislation to the most sweeping immigration changes in a generation. But they will have just 72 legislative days to achieve it before the scheduled date of adjournment. And they will have to overcome divisions in their own ranks to secure even the basics, such as a budget.

The House left town on April 7, having failed to pass a budget blueprint for the coming fiscal year. Republican moderates said the House budget plan would spend too little, especially on health, education and workforce programs. House conservatives said the plan spent too much, and members of the Appropriations Committee objected to new budget rules that they said would tie their hands and diminish their authority.

The Senate headed for its spring break under circumstances that were no less acrimonious. Republicans charged Democrats with obstructionism on a major immigration bill, and conservatives accused Republican leaders of capitulation on the immigration issue.

Andrew Kohut, the Pew Center's director, said voters are beginning to focus on congressional activities, and they do not like what they see.

"We see people engaged about Washington and not in a positive way," he said. "To be honest, I was surprised by these numbers."

About 41 percent of those polled said Congress has accomplished less than usual, compared with 27 percent who said so just before the midterm elections in 2002 and 16 percent who believed that in 2000.

Fifty-six percent of those polled said they would consider which party controls Congress when they vote in November. Previous polls back to 1998 never cracked 50 percent on that question. And 53 percent said they do not want to see most lawmakers reelected this year. In 2002 and 2004, fewer than 40 percent responded that way.

On the positive side for Republicans, 57 percent of respondents say they would like to see their member of Congress reelected, but 28 percent do not -- a level of personal opposition not seen since October 1994, on the eve of the Republican congressional landslide.

House leaders are "determined to get a budget done," said Ron Bonjean, spokesman for House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).

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