THE TIMES POLL : Public Backs Congress but Not Tax Cut Plans : Republican leadership wins qualified support. Yet Americans doubt GOP agenda can turn country around.


With the symbolic 100-day milestone approaching, Americans give qualified approval to the new Republican Congress, though they remain dubious of GOP plans for sweeping tax cuts, a new Times Poll has found.

In the survey, a plurality of Americans said that they back the GOP legislative agenda and a majority said that the Republicans are working to fulfill their campaign promises rather than backing away from them. But less than one-third said that they believe the Republican agenda will improve conditions in the country and nearly three in five say that it is unrealistic to consider cutting federal taxes now.

Similarly ambivalent notes resounded through the survey. On many important questions--from the priorities for economic policy to the relative capacity of President Clinton and congressional Republicans to solve the nation's most important problems--neither side musters a majority of public support. And despite the GOP success at moving much of its agenda rapidly through the House, the poll finds just 13% of those surveyed expressing much confidence in Congress, down slightly since January.

Indeed, the poll portrays a public still largely withholding judgment on the major actors in the furious political debate engulfing Washington and only intermittently engaged by the debate itself: A clear majority of those surveyed cannot name a single item in the GOP's "contract with America" which congressional Republicans have made progress with.

The poll finds President Clinton adrift near the midpoint of public opinion, with Americans narrowly approving of his job performance but a majority saying that they now plan to vote against him next year. In a trial heat for 1996, Clinton trails Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.), who has emerged as a clear front-runner for the Republican nomination, according to the poll.

Though the results of early presidential primaries can upend national polls almost overnight, Dole heads toward the April 10 formal announcement of his candidacy in an enviable position: In the survey, Republican partisans prefer Dole by a margin of three to one over his nearest rival, Texas Sen. Phil Gramm. California Gov. Pete Wilson, who apparently is nearing a formal declaration of his candidacy, begins well back in the pack, drawing support from just 2% of those surveyed.

The Times Poll, supervised by John Brennan, surveyed 1,285 adults from March 15 through March 19. It has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points.

Like other recent national polls, this survey shows a political landscape in which the sharpening policy dispute between the parties is consolidating partisan allegiance at both ends of the ideological spectrum. On many issues, the poll reveals a public sharply polarized along partisan lines, with independents holding the balance and in most instances tilting guardedly toward the GOP.

Take, for instance, public attitudes toward the Republican congressional agenda. The GOP plan draws support from 76% of Republicans but disapproval from 57% of Democrats; independents cautiously favor the plan, 42% to 30%. Or take attitudes toward Clinton's performance in office. For all the grumbling from some party leaders about Clinton, 77% of Democrats give him high marks. An equal 77% of Republicans disapprove of his performance. Independents again split closely, with 46% approving, and 45% disapproving. Since January, Clinton's rating among Democrats has slightly increased, while falling 13 percentage points among Republicans.

Even the proposed nomination of Dr. Henry W. Foster Jr. as surgeon general--a subject on which many Americans are still uncertain--starkly divides the parties. Overall, Americans support his confirmation by 41% to 27%. But just over one in four Republicans back him, compared to about half of Democrats.

The pattern reappears most forcefully in a hypothetical general election matchup between Clinton and Dole. Overall, Dole leads among registered voters by 52% to 44%. Clinton draws support from 80% of Democrats, while a dramatic 96% of Republicans said they back Dole. Independents lean toward the Republican Party, 52% to 42%.

Not all Democrats are satisfied with Clinton. In the survey, about one-third of probable Democratic primary voters said that the party should look for another nominee in 1996. The fact that far fewer Democrats defect to Dole in a hypothetical matchup underscores the extent to which the sharpening political hostility in Washington appears to be reinforcing partisan loyalties among voters.

As House Republicans move toward completion of their extraordinarily ambitious 100-day agenda, the poll shows general support for their efforts, though doubts about specific priorities, and restrained enthusiasm, at best, that the program will significantly change American life for the better.

Just as a plurality expressed approval for the congressional leadership's agenda, 45% said they believe Republicans in Congress have the best ideas for solving the nation's problems and only 34% name Clinton. Fifty-two percent of those surveyed (including one-third of Democrats and a majority of independents) credited the Republicans with "trying hard to fulfill the promises they made during the 1994 campaign," while just 35% said they are going back on those promises.

And the survey finds Democrats making only limited inroads with several of their most pointed arguments against the Republican Congress. Only one in four of those surveyed said that the Republican program is too conservative--and 60% of those are Democrats. (By comparison, one in three Americans said that Clinton is too liberal.) Despite intensifying Democratic accusations that Republicans are unfairly retrenching programs for the poor, just 14% said that the GOP majority in Congress has gone too far in cutting back government. A much larger 46% said that Congress has not gone far enough.

One Democratic argument appears to be reaching the public: 53% of those polled said Republicans care most about the rich, with just 14% saying that their top priority is the middle class and 27% saying that the GOP worries equally about all income groups.

As with much else in the poll, the public sides decisively with neither side when asked opinions about key elements of the GOP agenda.

The public is closely split on two key issues: a narrow 44%-39% plurality opposes a one-year moratorium on all federal regulation but a slim 48%-45% plurality supports a five-year time limit on welfare payments, even if recipients cannot find a job at that point, as the House GOP welfare bill under debate this week proposes.

The public leans strongly toward the GOP on crime. By a 54% to 38% margin, those polled said that they support the Republican plan to provide localities with grants to use in the "crime-stopping programs of their choice" rather than Clinton's targeted plan to provide aid for hiring 100,000 police officers.

But the survey added a seconding note to calls from Senate Republicans and indeed many rank-and-file House members for the House GOP leadership to scale back its ambitious package of individual and corporate tax breaks.

Fully 59% of those polled--including nearly half of Republicans and conservatives--said that it is "unrealistic" to propose tax cuts now; just 35% backed the idea. Asked the most important priority for government, 40% cited reducing the deficit, 26% cited increasing investment in domestic programs and just 20% said cutting taxes.

In the larger sense, it is unclear how deep an impression any of these arguments in Washington are leaving on the public. Nothing that has happened in Washington this year has improved the country's mood. In the survey, just 30% said that the country is moving in the right direction. Twice as many said it is on the wrong track--a relative degree of gloom that has actually deepened substantially since January.

Asked in an open-ended question to name one element of the GOP program on which congressional Republicans have made the most progress, 57% could not name a single one and another 12% said none. The next ranking answer, at 9%, was cutting government spending.

In the early test of sentiment among Republicans for the party's 1996 presidential nomination, Dole holds a commanding early lead, drawing support from 52% of registered voters who describe themselves as Republicans or independents who lean toward the GOP.

Gramm follows with 17%. And matched against Clinton in a hypothetical general election, Gramm trails 48% to 41%.

In the GOP contest, former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander and conservative commentator Patrick J. Buchanan follow with 7% and 4%, respectively. Bunched together at 2% are Wilson, Sens. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Richard G. Lugar of Indiana and maverick Orange County Rep. Robert K. Dornan.

At the moment, Dole's advantage is broadly based within the party. Dole humbles Gramm among liberal and moderate likely primary voters (by 65% to 9%) and still holds a 48% to 22% advantage among conservatives. Even in the South--the graveyard of Dole's 1988 campaign--the Kansas senator draws 49%, compared to 16% for Alexander and only 13% for Gramm.


GOP Scorecard

When it comes to the Republican congressional program, Americans have mixed feelings and limited knowledge. But they still prefer it to the ideas of President Clinton.

Do you approve or disapprove of the program the Republican congressional leadership is trying to pass? Approve: 43% Disapprove: 33% Don't know: 24% ***

Regardless of whether you agree with them or not, how much progress do you think the Republicans are making in getting their major parts of their program through Congress? A great deal: 7% A good amount: 41% Not too much: 34% Hardly any: 11% Don't know: 7% ***

Would you say the Republicans in Congress care more about poor people, or care more about middle-income people, or care more about the rich--or would you cay the Republicans in Congress care about all income groups equally? Poor: 1% Middle: 14% Rich: 53% All groups: 27% Don't know: 5% ***

On what part of their program have the Republicans in Congress made the most progress? (top five answers; up to four replies accepted) Don't know: 57% None, have made no progress: 12% Cut government spending: 9% Balanced budget amendment: 7% Welfare reform: 5% ***

Who do you think has the better ideas for how to solve the problems this country currently faces: President Clinton or the Republicans in Congress? Republicans: 45% Clinton: 34% Neither: 9% Both equally: 6% Don't know: 6% ***

Do you think the Republicans in Congress are trying hard to fulfill the promises they made during the 1994 campaign or are they going back on many of those promises? Fulfill promises: 52% Going back: 35% Don't know: 13% ***

As you may know, one of the chief goals of many Republicans in Congress is to cut back on the size and the growth of federal government. In their attempts to cut back government, do you think the Republicans have gone too far, or not far enough, or have they gone just about as far as they should? Too far: 14% Not far enough: 46% As far as they should: 29% Don't know: 11% ***

Is there one part of the Republican program you would particularly like to see adopted? (top five answers; up to two replies accepted) Don't know: 31% None, want no part of program adopted: 24% Balanced budget amendment: 13% Cut government spending: 7% Welfare reform: 7% ***

How the poll was conducted: The Times Poll interviewed 1,285 adults nationwide, by telephone, March 15 through 19. Telephone numbers were chosen from a list of exchanges in the nation. Random-digit dialing techniques were used so that listed and non-listed numbers could be contacted. Interviewing was conducted in English and Spanish. The sample was weighted slightly to conform with census figures for sex, race, age and education. The margin of sampling error for the total sample is plus or minus 3 percentage points; for certain subgroups the error margin may be higher. Poll results can also be affected by other factors such as question wording and the order in which questions are presented.

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