WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The new Democratic-led Congress is drawing the ire of voters upset with its failure to quickly deliver on a promise to end the Iraq war.
This is reflected in polls that show Congress — plagued by partisan bickering mostly about the war — at one of its lowest approval ratings in a decade. Surveys find only about one in four Americans approves of it.
“I understand their disappointment,” said Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada. “We raised the bar too high.”
In winning control of Congress from President George W. Bush’s Republicans last November, Democrats told voters they would move swiftly to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq.
But they now say voters must understand they need help from Republicans to clear procedural hurdles, override presidential vetoes and force Bush to change course.
Democratic Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware said he explained this recently to anti-war demonstrators. “‘We know. We know,’” he quoted them as replying. “But we are so disappointed.’”
Biden, seeking the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, said: “Voters are going to be mad with us until we end the war.”
House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi said some Democrats understand “we can only do so much.”
“Others are just very unhappy. I include myself among them,” Pelosi, of California, told The New York Times.
Republicans have increasingly voiced their own concerns. Yet most have stood by Bush — at least for now — and given him the votes he needed to block timetables for withdrawal.
Republicans also are tweaking Democrats on other fronts, such as stalled efforts to upgrade health care and reduce the cost of college and energy.
They are even adopting the same line Democrats once used against them, calling this “a do-nothing Congress.”
“If Democrats fail to reverse course, the dynamics in the 2008 elections may shift significantly, allowing Republicans to run as the party of change ... only two years after Democrats successfully campaigned on that same theme,” Senate Republican leaders told their ranks in a letter last week.
Just as it was before last year’s elections, polls show most Americans believe the United States is headed in the wrong direction.
“The primary reason is war,” said James Thurber of American University’s Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies.
But there are other reasons. “People have problems in their lives and they don’t see the White House or Congress dealing with it,” Thurber said.
A Quinnipiac University poll this month found Congress with an approval rating of just 23 percent. “People voted for change. But they don’t think they got it,” said Peter Brown, an assistant director of the poll.
A Gallup poll last month put Congress’s approval rating at 29 percent. The number had fallen to 21 percent last December, just weeks before Republicans yielded control.
Still, the new polls have stung Democrats and put them on the defensive.
Democrats point to the nearly daily congressional oversight hearings they have held into how Bush does business, many dealing with the war. They also note that unlike Republicans last year, they passed a federal budget plan.
But among Democrats’ top legislative promises, just one, the first increase in the federal minimum wage in a decade, has been passed by Congress and signed into law by Bush.
Congress recently approved another priority — a bill to expand federally funded embryonic stem cell research. But Democrats are not expected to be able to override a Bush veto.
On another high-stakes issue, top Senate Democrats and Republicans were struggling to pass legislation to overhaul U.S. immigration laws, despite attacks from many conservative Republicans and some liberal Democrats.
Democrats intend to crank up pressure on Bush with votes on proposals to revoke Congress’ 2002 authorization of the war, set a deadline for troop withdrawals and increase requirements for troop readiness. Republicans will likely block them.
“We’re disappointed the war drags on with no end in sight, but realize Democratic leaders can only accomplish what they have the votes for,” said Brad Woodhouse of Americans United for Change, a liberal group active in the anti-war movement.
Pelosi and Reid wrote Bush last week urging him to listen to the will of people on Iraq. “Work with us,” they pleaded.