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Congressional Approval Slipping in Seinfeld-esque Fashion

It was something out of an episode of "Seinfeld" today in the Senate: a session about nothing.

And on a day when the only senator in the chamber worked for seven seconds, a new Gallup Poll found congressional approval ratings at dismally low levels. More than 70 percent of Americans don't like what the Democratic majority has achieved. Or, more likely, a huge percentage of voters now see little difference between what happened today - Sen. James Webb (D-Va.) opening the chamber just so he could close the chamber in a pro forma session - and what happens every day in Congress: nothing.

Just 20 percent of Americans approve of the job of Congress, a 9-point drop from a month ago, according to Gallup. This is one of the four lowest approval ratings ever recorded by the polling firm, which has been testing congressional job approval since 1974. The lowest rating ever for Congress -- a paltry 18 percent -- was registered in 1992 and again last August.

"I think the American public has every right to be frustrated with Congress," Webb told reporters after his brief performance in the Senate's pro-forma session today.

But the crux of the problem facing Democrats is two groups of voters who appear to have very different reasons for their disapproval. Of self described Democratic voters, the base of the party that turned out at the polls in droves in 2006 and has contributed heavily to campaign war chests, just 26 percent approve of the job of Congress. Those are the voters who are most angry at the Democratic leadership for not forcefully orchestrating change in the direction of the Iraq war.

Congress is rated much worse by moderates, among whom just 14 percent approve of the performance on Capitol Hill, according to Gallup. These voters, who broke heavily toward Democrats in House and Senate races last year, are most distressed with what they see as a lack of accomplishments in Congress so far this year.

Webb's race was one of the most politically important of 2006. His upset election victory over incumbent Republican George Allen was the one that gave Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) a caucus of 51 and the title of majority leader. And Webb was one of the most effective campaigners at blending those two disparate voting groups together - the angry anti-war liberals, with his out-of-Iraq message, and the moderates from suburban and exurban areas longing for non-partisan results in a former war hero.

And the Democratic majority on Capitol Hill is getting ready for a showdown with President Bush over a raft of spending bills, tax issues, Iraq war funds, terrorist surveillance and other issues. How the Democrats move in the next few weeks, as well as the next year, will go a long way toward determining how those two voting blocs - liberals who want confrontation with President Bush and moderates who want results - view the party heading into the 2008 elections.

Today, Webb said the real problem was the behavior of Republicans, who have forced more than 50 cloture votes to try to kill off everything from Iraq war funding with a troop withdrawal date to farm legislation. "It's part of the Republican strategy to paralyze the Congress so that it will assist them in the '08 elections," he said. "It's a very difficult environment to work in."

But today's environment was downright pleasant: not a Republican to be seen, as Webb got the duty of opening the chamber's pro forma session so as to block any move by Bush to make interim recess appointments to the executive or judicial branches.

After the clerk introduced Webb as the guest president pro tempore of the Senate, Webb spoke for just seven seconds: "Under the previous order the Senate stands in recess until Friday, November 23, twenty-07, at 10 am."

Then he banged the gavel and departed.

By Paul Kane  |  November 20, 2007; 1:53 PM ET
 
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