For the past several years, congressional Republicans have focused relentlessly on a single message: Washington -- led by President Obama -- is spending too much money, and it needs to stop.

But according to new Washington Post-ABC News polling, that laser-like focus isn't helping Republicans win the argument over federal spending -- with 67 percent of those tested disapproving of the "way Republicans in Congress are handling federal spending."

While Obama's numbers aren't stellar on that same spending question -- 52 percent disapproval -- he is in considerably stronger shape than his Republican adversaries as Washington braces for the $1.2 trillion in automatic cuts known as the sequester to take effect on Friday. In fact, Obama's 43 percent overall approval on his handling of federal spending is the same number as those who strongly disapprove of how congressional Republicans are handling it.

As we have seen in other recent polling, a major part of Republicans' overall approval problem -- in this case on federal spending -- comes from divisions within their own party.

Forty-four percent of self-identified Republicans approve of how their side is handling spending issues, while 51 percent disapprove. Even the base of the party is less than enthusiastic about how the congressional GOP has approached the issue -- with 50 percent of conservative Republicans approving and 49 percent disapproving. Compare that to the nearly nine in ten (87 percent) of liberal Democrats who approve of how Obama has handled federal spending.

Here's another way to look at it: Roughly one in three (34 percent) of respondents disapprove of both Obama and congressional Republicans' handling of federal spending issues. You'd expect disapproval of both sides to be highest among independents, those fence-sitters who don't fit neatly into either party. You'd be wrong. While 40 percent of independents disapprove of both actors in this drama, 45 percent of Republicans feel the same way. (Just 18 percent of Democrats go for the "pox on both your houses" approach.)

The poll isn't great news for anyone involved in the debate over how much the federal government should spend -- and on what. When a majority of the American public disapproves of how you are handling one of the major issues, not just of the day but of our time, it's not good.

That said, Republicans have put their battle to rein in federal spending front and center as they seek to (re)define who they are as a party. And, at least according to these numbers, that effort has yet to pay dividends -- even within their own base.

Illinois Democrats nominate Kelly in win for gun control: Former state representative Robin Kelly won the Democratic nomination in Illinois' 2nd district special election decisively Tuesday night, outpacing former congresswoman Debbie Halvorson by a wide margin.

Her win was a victory for gun-control advocates led by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg (I), whose super PAC dumped about $2.5 million into the campaign. Most of that money was targeted at Halvorson, who previously had an 'A' rating from the NRA.

Bloomberg praised Kelly's victory Tuesday night as he pressed Congress to pass new gun control measures. "As Congress considers the President's gun package, voters in Illinois have sent a clear message: we need common sense gun legislation now. Now it's up to Washington to act," he said.

Kelly's win all but guarantees her a spot in Congress, given the strong Democrat tilt in the 2nd district. The general election will be held April 9. The special election was triggered by the resignation of Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.), who admitted in court last week to misusing hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of campaign funds.

As for Bloomberg, the results of Tuesday night will serve as a reminder to congressional candidates that the NRA isn't the only group in the gun control debate willing to spend big to influence races.

Rand Paul votes for Hagel: Chuck Hagel's confirmation as Defense Secretary on Tuesday provided a rare break between two potential 2016 presidential contenders: GOP Sens. Rand Paul (Ky.) and Marco Rubio (Fla.).

While Rubio voted against Hagel's confirmation, Paul voted for it -- just hours after he voted for the second time against bringing Hagel's nomination to a vote.

Paul's odd voting pattern -- it's rare to see a senator vote against cloture but then for something, though the reverse is quite common -- was perhaps the only surprise on Tuesday.

Paul spokeswoman Moira Bagley said Paul voted against cloture because he wanted more questions answered, but that in the end Paul believes "the President should be entitled to some leeway on his political appointments."

As we've written previously on The Fix, Rubio and Paul have been among the most conservative members of Congress over the last two years, and with both looking at 2016 presidential bids, votes on which they depart from each other are worth remembering.


New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) was excluded from this year's CPAC because of his push for a Hurricane Sandy relief bill that conservatives criticized as full of pork, says American Conservative Union chairman Al Cardenas.

Just 29 percent of people say they agree with most of what the GOP is selling, compared to 40 percent who say the same of Democrats, according to a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.

Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) goes after Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) for opting out of the federal Medicaid expansion, suggesting he's trying to avoid offending his party.

The super PAC tweeting offensive things about Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has also failed to file a campaign finance report.


"Sequester will sock a vulnerable economy" -- Jim Tankersley, Washington Post

Capital Insight polling director Jon Cohen and pollsters Scott Clement and Peyton M. Craighill contributed to this report.