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Judicial Slugfest Likely to Bruise Lawmakers’ Image Further

Times Staff Writer

Both political parties have begun the showdown over judicial nominations in a weakened position, facing low approval ratings for their performance in Congress that compound the political risks in the confrontation.

Few strategists expect any of the arguments over the GOP’s bid to thwart Senate filibusters to sway many voters in the 2006 elections. But many analysts believe the conflict could increase and solidify the public antagonism toward Washington surfacing in polls -- especially if the dispute, as is likely, deepens Capitol Hill’s partisan acrimony and impedes action on problems more tangible to voters, from gasoline prices to Social Security.

The key political question is whether the public disenchantment will hurt the GOP more, because it holds the majority and seeks the rule change.

“There’s only one word for this, and that is: unpredictable,” said Andrew Kohut, director of the nonpartisan Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. “I think there is great risk in taking this up to another level and not finding a way to compromise out of it, and I think there is especially tremendous risk for Republicans.”

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Both sides step into this fight visibly bruised by recent events.

Since last year’s election, the news in Washington has been dominated by Bush’s drive to restructure Social Security that has generated majority opposition in polls; the congressional intervention in the case of the brain-damaged Florida woman, Terri Schiavo, which provoked a sharp backlash in public opinion surveys; the ethics charges swirling around House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas); and the escalating acrimony over Democratic efforts to block some of Bush’s most controversial judicial appointments through the filibuster.

Rising gasoline prices, resurgent violence in Iraq and a volatile stock market have intensified public anxiety about the nation’s direction.

The result has been gloomy numbers for players across the political spectrum. Bush’s approval rating has been stuck at 50% or lower, below the level of most reelected presidents this early in a second term.

A Pew survey released this week found that 39% of Americans gave positive marks to Democrats in Congress, with 41% disapproving of them. For congressional Republicans, the results were bleaker. Of those polled, 35% said they approved of the GOP’s performance, with 50% disapproving.

Those are some of the weakest numbers the poll has recorded for both parties. The poll was conducted May 11-15 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

The Pew survey also found that nearly two-thirds of Americans believe Congress is bickering more than usual -- a percentage approaching the levels seen during the 1995 shutdown of the federal government and the aftermath of President Clinton’s impeachment in 1999.

Such findings fuel Democratic optimism that Republicans will pay the highest price if the collision over judges generates more partisan conflict and fewer legislative achievements through election day 2006.

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Democrats believe the confrontation will support their effort to stress a national message that congressional Republicans are abusing their power, governing with excessive partisanship and focusing on divisive, ideological crusades rather than bread-and-butter concerns.

In Pennsylvania, the fight over the filibuster is being used against Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.). His leading Democratic challenger in next year’s election, state Treasurer Robert P. Casey Jr., said he was criticizing the effort primarily because it would aggravate partisan hostility in Washington.

“I think a lot of people don’t want to see that kind of extremism in Washington,” Casey said.

Stanley B. Greenberg, Clinton’s pollster during his first term, believes that this partisanship is moving the GOP majority toward problems similar to those that cost Democrats control of Congress in the 1994 election.

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Although Greenberg acknowledged that Democrats would be in a stronger position if their approval ratings were higher, he said the lesson of 1994 was that the majority party suffered most when the public was disillusioned with both sides on Capitol Hill.

“Bottom line: The Republicans hold power, and if the place breaks down into an ugly partisan mess, it’s the Republicans who get thrown out of power,” he said. “The country will hold them accountable -- just as they held us accountable in 1994.”

The differences between today’s environment and the climate in 1994 are significant. Most polls find the overall approval rating for Congress today is about 35%, still higher than the low- to mid-20s marks it received then. And the number of competitive seats -- in the House and Senate -- is smaller today than in 1994

But in a potentially important similarity, public polling just before the GOP landslide in 1994 showed both parties receiving low marks for their performance in Congress that year, comparable to their weak ratings in the recent Pew survey. And in 1994 only the majority Democrats paid a price, losing 52 House seats and eight in the Senate.

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GOP consultant Don Fierce helped engineer the party’s 1994 breakthrough as director of strategic planning at the Republican National Committee. He agrees with Greenberg that Republicans have the most to fear if public disillusionment with Congress hardens.

“When there is a negative attitude toward Congress,” he said, “those in power in Congress get hurt the most.”

But Fierce, like many other GOP strategists, believe that Republicans still need to force the confrontation over judges, partly to generate excitement from core supporters, particularly conservative Christian activists. “If our base is not active and supportive, then we would be in serious trouble,” he said.

Many Republicans think the confrontation also will provide the party an opportunity to stamp Democrats as “obstructionists” -- an argument that has cut effectively in the last two elections.

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Many strategists say that neither party can be certain who would suffer most if they can’t reach a compromise on judicial nominations -- especially if the reverberations from the struggle undermine progress on other issues. “It is problematic on both sides,” said veteran GOP pollster Tony Fabrizio.

It may be as if both parties are standing on thin ice and jointly decide to crack it. The puzzle is whether anyone can benefit if everyone sinks.


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