But Democrats are now turning to the more difficult part of their agenda: proposing higher taxes to pay for a massive infrastructure package. They remain in a stalemate over how to address immigration laws, gun control and raising the minimum wage. Failure to pass these key liberal agenda items would deflate Democratic voters, but approving them in a hyperpartisan fashion could again alienate independents.
Last spring, after a flurry of bipartisan coronavirus rescue packages totaling nearly $3 trillion, more than 30 percent of Americans approved of the job Congress was doing for two consecutive months, the first time the Gallup poll recorded that level since 2009. Republicans, Democrats and independents all showed gains in approving how Congress handled the early days of the pandemic, when more than 25 million jobs vanished and hospital wards were flooded.
But the public quickly soured on Congress again as the late spring, summer and fall were dominated by partisan sniping and no legislative results ahead of the bitter November elections.
By mid-December, as President Donald Trump and nearly 150 congressional GOP allies prepared to contest Biden’s clear victory, just 15 percent of Americans approved of Congress — and the rejection was across the ideological spectrum. Democratic voters were the most scornful, as just 11 percent approved of the performance on Capitol Hill, according to the monthly Gallup poll.
But the events of the first quarter of this year — the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, the February impeachment trial of Trump and the March passage of the rescue legislation that included $1,400 individual checks — sent congressional approval ratings up to 36 percent, Gallup announced Tuesday.
That’s the highest level of public approval since June 2009, the last time at least 1 in 3 Americans approved of how Congress handled its work. Back then, Democrats had nearly 60 Senate seats and had a House majority north of 255 seats, leading to quick passage of several key items to deal with the Great Recession.
Experts say this new wave of congressional support is probably the result of voters enjoying getting direct cash payments from Washington.
“First, it helps that Congress is giving out money,” said Amy Walter, national editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
Walter also suggested that Biden’s overall tone toward Congress is the opposite of Trump’s prior wrangling with Capitol Hill.
“Second, you don’t have a president who is constantly stoking anger with the place and the people in it,” she said.
Not everyone is seeing Congress in a new light. Republican voters do not like what they are seeing occur under the Capitol dome, with just 9 percent approving of congressional actions in this month’s Gallup survey. GOP support for Congress was twice as high in early to mid-January, but once Biden got sworn in Jan. 20 and Democrats claimed the Senate majority that same day, GOP voters turned sharply against Congress.
But 59 percent of Democratic voters approve of the congressional job performance, a sixfold increase from mid-December, along with 34 percent of independents — more than doubling their approval of Congress from three months earlier.
Four years ago, when Republicans took control of all layers of power, there was a slight bump in support for Congress based on GOP voters growing from 20 percent approving of job performance to 50 percent.
But by early April, after House Republicans failed in their first attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act, Trump began lashing out at his own allies, something that would continue through the summer as Senate Republicans similarly failed to repeal the landmark health law.
Walter noted that Biden has no such rivalry with his allies on Capitol Hill, instead being “united in both substance and spirit” on the early agenda.
“Democrats are getting pretty much everything they want (for now), which makes them happy,” she said.
The “for now” hesitation should give Democrats pause about the early successes.
They packed an enormous amount of their agenda that falls into budgetary matters, allowing them to use a procedural device in the Senate to approve it on a simple party-line vote rather than clearing 60 votes to cut off a filibuster. They get to use that device once more this year, and they appear to be gearing up to pile possibly $3 trillion worth of spending into that package.
But other major policy items do not fall into this budget process and require getting at least 10 Senate Republicans to back them — or getting enough Democrats to vote to eliminate the filibuster altogether.
Neither of those avenues is open right now, as Republicans have shown great reluctance to support the sweeping agenda Biden has embraced so far, and a handful of moderate Senate Democrats have resisted eliminating the filibuster.
As the year goes on, liberal disenchantment is almost certain to grow.
And, once the stimulus checks are spent, results-oriented independents might view Congress more negatively.
As Justin McCarthy, a Gallup analyst, noted, the bump in congressional approval mirrors an overall bump in the number of Americans who are satisfied with the direction the nation is now heading. That jumped from just 11 percent after the attack on the Capitol to 32 percent by mid-March.
“It is possible that satisfaction with the country’s direction will extend beyond party lines if the government continues to make headway in combating the spread of COVID-19 and the U.S. economy continues to show signs of meaningful recovery,” McCarthy wrote Tuesday. “But it is also possible that Republicans will remain dissatisfied while Democrats’ recent boost of enthusiasm wears off as the year progresses.”