WASHINGTON - These are tough times for the Democratic-led U.S. Congress, where partisan battles have led to little progress on big issues and have made lawmakers collectively less popular than President George W. Bush.
Congress, typically never all that popular to begin with, starts the second half of 2007 with an anemic job approval rating of about 25 percent, down from 43 percent in January, with one Gallup poll ranking lawmakers at 14 percent.
Experts attribute the woeful rankings to an inability to force a change in direction in Iraq, the priority Democrats campaigned on to gain power in both the House of Representatives and the Senate in last November's elections.
But that is not all. There has been little to show on other priorities, including a change in Social Security and other entitlement programs that will run out of money in the years ahead, in addition to overhauling a health care system that has left millions uninsured and a broken immigration policy.
"I think Americans were expecting a great deal from the new Congress, and Congress has always been held in low esteem, but Congress really hasn't delivered on what it promised, especially on Iraq," said Paul Light, a congressional expert who is a professor at New York University.
Democrats in charge of Congress insist they have made progress on several issues, like increasing the minimum hourly wage and getting money for victims of the 2005 Katrina hurricane. They blame the Republican minority for a failure on others such as immigration, greater energy independence, and on negotiation of lower-priced drugs for Medicare.
"I'm not really much for polls," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada. "We're going to continue doing what we think is the right thing for the American public in spite of a White House and the Republicans who are stalling every step of the way."
Democrats drew a line in the sand over Iraq in the spring, using a $100 billion war spending bill to try to force Bush to accept a troop withdrawal date.
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The effort failed miserably, with Bush finally getting what he wanted with no strings attached, and the White House saw the fractious debate as taking time away from work on other priorities.
"They've proven that they're not capable of taking on big issues," an administration official said.
Democrats beg to differ, pointing out that under their stewardship the Congress has resumed its traditional watchdog role over an administration they feel got off scot-free under Republican leadership.
"I would say in the first six months, gauging how things operate here from the majority, that we had some important work to do," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California. "We had to drain the swamp. We had to create the oversight."
With American patience running thin over the Iraq war and casualties rising, Democrats may eventually force a change in direction in the unpopular war, an effort being renewed this week on Capitol Hill.
The Iraq situation has so infuriated the Democratic left that Cindy Sheehan, the California liberal who began a long protest against Bush after her soldier son Casey was killed in Iraq, is talking about running against Pelosi in 2008.
"I think the decline in support (for Congress) since the Democrats took over reflects in part the unhappiness of the base in the inability of Democrats to immediately stop the war in Iraq," said Thomas Mann, a congressional expert at the Brookings Institution.
The analysts say Congress' low poll numbers also reflect an altogether negative mood among Americans who are tired of the war, fed up with rising gasoline prices and worried about their jobs in a changing economy.
But how all this plays out in the 2008 election is hard to say. Incumbent lawmakers, while collectively held in low esteem, rarely fail to win re-election.
© Reuters 2007.