WASHINGTON – Public approval for Congress is at its highest level in a year as Democrats mark 100 days in power and step up their confrontation with President Bush over his handling of the Iraq War, the issue that overshadows all others.
Yet for all their eagerness to challenge Bush, congressional Democrats so far have failed to attract significant support among independents, a group that helped propel them to power in last fall's elections and now appears more strongly opposed to the war than the general public.
The findings from an AP-Ipsos nationwide poll provide a snapshot of public sentiment in the days after the House and Senate triggered a series of veto threats from the president by passing separate bills that provide funds for the war, yet also call for the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops.
Overall approval for Congress is 40 percent. The survey shows Bush's approval ratings remain in the mid-30 percent range, that a striking 39 percent strongly disapproves his handling of foreign policy and the war on terror, and that the public has scant hopes that the president and Congress can work together to solve the country's problems.
"The Democrats are back," Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the first woman speaker in history, had exulted on Jan. 3 as her party claimed control for the first time in more than a decade.
While the Iraq war has dominated the days since then, Democrats also quickly showcased their domestic priorities and used their power to convene hearings — and issue subpoenas — to embarrass the administration.
Valerie Plame, the former CIA operative, was the star witness at a mid-March House hearing. Before a bank of television cameras, she testified that senior officials at the White House and State Department had "carelessly and recklessly" blown her cover to discredit her diplomat-husband in a controversy related to the Iraq War.
Already, though, the limits on the new majority's power are evident.
The minimum wage bill is becalmed as Republicans demand tax cuts as the price for passage.
And Bush has threatened to veto a measure to expand the criteria for federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. The House passed the bill earlier in the year, and Senate debate is scheduled for this week.
Pelosi pointed to a fast start at a news conference shortly before lawmakers left the Capitol for a two-week break.
"In the first 100 hours, as you know, we passed legislation to make our economy fairer, to make our country safer, to make college more accessible, health care more affordable, promoted energy independence, and to do so in a fiscally sound way, upholding the highest ethical standard with great openness and transparency in government."
Republicans differed, pointedly so.
"They haven't enacted anything and they haven't kept one of their promises in terms of how they were going to treat the minority," said House Republican Leader John Boehner of Ohio, referring to a Democratic practice of refusing to allow votes on GOP-backed amendments.
"They also put a lot of their members in a very uncomfortable position last week with the spending bill for Iraq and Afghanistan with $22 billion in extra spending."
While Pelosi has commanded much of the spotlight for the Democrats, the party's Senate leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, has shown an increasing willingness to challenge Bush over Iraq.
"A strategy that encourages this enemy to wait us out is dangerous — dangerous for our troops, dangerous for our security," Bush said in one of several recent veto threats.
Reid responded by announcing support for legislation to give the president one year to get troops out, ending funding for combat operations after March 31, 2008.
That is a tougher stand than either the House or Senate took last month, and the next step will be for lawmakers to reach a compromise when they return from a spring break.
A veto is widely expected, and the president is likely to demand Congress then send him a replacement measure that meets his conditions. That would pose a challenge to Pelosi and Reid as they try to satisfy the anti-war members of their rank and file while fending off charges they are leaving the troops without sufficient funds.
Against that backdrop, the AP poll indicates the public wants Congress to push for an end to a war that has claimed the lives of more than 3,200 U.S. troops.
Forty percent of those surveyed said they approve the job Congress is doing, up from 25 percent approval registered for the Republican majority in the weeks leading to last fall's elections. Disapproval of Congress totals 57 percent.
The public opinion split is identical on the issue of Democratic handling of Iraq — 40 percent approve, 57 percent disapprove.
Support is lower among self-described political independents, who deserted Republicans in last fall's elections to give 57 percent of their votes to Democrats. Now, only 32 percent of them register approval of the job Congress is doing; 36 percent favor the way Democrats are handling Iraq.
Even anti-war Democrats seem slow in warming to the new majority in Congress. While 59 percent of that group approve of the way their party is handling Iraq, 39 percent disapprove.
Among Republicans, 86 percent disapprove.
The poll relied on interviews with 1000 adults, including 819 registered voters, from April 2-4. The margin of error was 3 percentage points.