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Drama on the Hill: Americans shrug

As the Senate nears a showdown over filibusters, the answer to which party is winning the PR battle may be 'neither.'

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 23, 2005


In Washington, the showdown is looming. Republicans and Democrats are filling their PR arsenals and spinning the news before it occurs, trying to liven up arcane subjects like cloture and calling their opponents names that range from Hitler to Supreme Chancellor Palpatine, the latest Star Wars villain.

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Inside the Beltway, it's shaping up to be the Great Filibuster Battle of 2005. The rest of America, however, seems to be giving the face-off a collective yawn. Many voters don't even know it's occurring, and many of those who do, don't care - or, worse, see it as more proof that Congress is wrapped up in its own partisan bickering when it should be dealing with issues that matter.

As the Senate heads toward an expected Tuesday vote on barring judicial filibusters, and the fight over judicial nominees grows nastier, the answer to which party is winning the battle for public opinion may be "neither."

Americans think "there's no direct relationship to their lives, and they have other things to be concerned about," says Larry Sabato, director of the center for politics at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. "They see it as typical politicians fighting in the sandbox while Rome is burning."

That's not to say there aren't people who care passionately about the filibuster, or about the judges whose confirmation hearings are sparking the battle, particularly among voters with strong partisan ties. Opinion polls so far give a slight edge to the Democrats' mantra - that it's not right to change the rules in the middle of the game - over the Republicans' message that all judges deserve a fair vote. But observers caution that could change quickly if Democrats begin to seem as if they're slowing the gears of government.

Informal Monitor interviews with pedestrians and shoppers in Pittsburgh, Chicago, and Nashville reveal - aside from an extreme lack of knowledge about the issue - the expected party allegiances and occasional nuanced view, but also an overall distaste for much of what occurs in the nation's capital.

"You get close enough to Washington and you can smell the stink," says Nick Zeger, a young pharmacy technician who voted for Bush, outside a Nashville grocery store. "I'm disgusted with the Republicans in the fact that it's come to this, but I'm more disgusted with the Democrats for refusing to work with them.'' And if he had to blame anyone for the impasse? "It would be the American people - because we're the voters and we chose these clown acts to go to Washington."

Congress gets no respect

Part of that attitude reflects a general dissatisfaction with government right now. Polls show approval for Congress down around 35 percent, approaching the lows during the government shutdown of 1995.

An NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey released last week, for instance, found that 51 percent of Americans disapproved of the job Congress is doing versus 33 percent who approved. Perhaps more worrisome for lawmakers, 65 percent of the respondents said Congress has a different set of priorities than the rest of the country.

With gas prices soaring, violence remaining entrenched in Iraq, and Social Security a major concern, arguments about how judges are confirmed, whether the courts are being stacked, or whether the minority party's rights are being protected seem distant and procedural to many.

"There's a sense of frustration on the part of the public that there are big problems out there, and we have big majorities thinking the country is losing ground on problems, but none of them has much to do with the issues at the heart of the filibuster battle," says Scott Keeter, director of survey research at the Pew Research Center.

In a Pew poll conducted last week, just 14 percent of those surveyed said they were following the filibuster showdown closely, Mr. Keeter notes, compared to 58 percent who said they were following the price of gasoline and 42 percent who admitted to keeping close tabs on Iraq.