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.'

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.

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.

To the extent the public is listening, both parties' messages have some resonance. Republicans are hammering the idea of Democrats as obstructionists and emphasizing judicial nominees' right to a fair vote - an idea that certainly plays well with the party's base, and may appeal to increasing numbers of Americans if the fight drags on.

"They at least deserve an up or down vote,'' says Roy Heil, a Nashville salesman, of Bush's judicial nominees. "If they get voted down, they get voted down.'' He'd have the same attitude, he insists, if it were Republicans holding up Democratic nominees with filibusters.

But early on, at least, the Democrats seem to have a slight edge. A Time magazine/SRBI poll released a week ago found that 59 percent of respondents thought the Republicans shouldn't be able to eliminate the filibuster, while 28 percent said they should. The NBC/Wall Street Journal poll was closer: 32 percent opposed ending the filibuster, while 31 percent favored it.

The Democrats' themes - that the Republicans are power hungry, are trampling on long-established minority-party rights, and are trying to change the rules now that they're the ones in control - can hit home even for voters who aren't hard-core Democrats, says Stuart Rothenberg, an independent political analyst. "That's the kind of message Americans react to," he says. "They don't like someone changing the rules in the middle of the game."

The view from a Chicago cafe

Indeed, those voters with a taste for Washington news and political history are often quick to point out that not long ago the Republicans were using the same filibuster-stalling tactics they now claim to abhor.

"Doesn't Strom Thurmond hold the filibuster record?" asks Jim Coopman, a Chicago accountant, relaxing outside the Intelligentsia cafe. (His Washington trivia point is accurate.) Mr. Coopman, while skeptical that this should be Washington's focus right now, is a firm believer that the filibuster should remain. "It's historic, and it gives them time to negotiate," he says. "Once the Republicans start chipping away on this, where does it end?"

A few blocks away at a bus stop, Alan Feibel is inclined to agree. The filibuster "has its place; without it, the majority would always rule," says the middle-aged salesman, as he skims over the day's Chicago Tribune. "Personally, I think it's stupid, but if it's the only course of preventing something terrible from happening, I guess we should keep it."

But those who know the filibuster's purpose, much less its history, are rare outside Washington. This is the classic sort of issue - complex and political - where voters simply line up behind their party, say some observers.

"Those who like the president, who like Tom DeLay, who like Bill Frist, are strongly with the Republicans here," says pollster John Zogby of Zogby International. "Those who voted for Kerry are militantly opposed. To the degree there's a middle ground left, they're not paying attention because it doesn't have anything to do with them: It's not about gas prices or taxes or things folks in the middle generally care about."

Take Vince, a Pittsburgh writer who's a registered Republican who voted for Kerry (and who declined to give his last name). He's followed the debate and can see some merit in both sides - "sometimes I think the right is right, sometimes I think the left is right" - but the more the battle continues, the less he's interested, and the more he thinks both sides just care about the politics.

"I'm interested in broader issues," he says, citing the widening economic divide as an example. On the filibuster flap, "I've started to zone out as they've started getting into the technicalities."

Sara B. Miller in Pittsburgh and Amy Green in Nashville, Tenn., contributed to this report.

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