WASHINGTON — Americans are plenty angry at Congress in the aftermath of the debt crisis and Republicans could pay the greatest price, a new Associated Press-GfK poll suggests.
The poll finds the tea party has lost support, Republican House Speaker John Boehner is increasingly unpopular and people are warming to the idea of not just cutting spending but also raising taxes – anathema to the GOP – just as both parties prepare for another struggle with deficit reduction.
To be sure, there is plenty of discontent to go around. The poll finds more people are down on their own member of Congress, not just the institution, an unusual finding in surveys and one bound to make incumbents particularly nervous. In interviews, some people said the debt standoff itself, which caused a crisis of confidence to ripple through world markets, made them wonder whether lawmakers are able to govern at all.
"I guess I long for the day back in the `70s and `80s when we could disagree but we could get a compromise worked out," said Republican Scott MacGregor, 45, a Windsor, Conn., police detective. "I don't think there's any compromise anymore."
The results point to a chilly autumn in Washington as the divided Congress returns to the same fiscal issues that almost halted other legislative business and are certain to influence the struggle for power in the 2012 elections. They suggest that politicians, regardless of party, have little to gain by prolonging the nation's most consequential policy debate. And they highlight the gap between the wider public's wishes now and the tea party's cut-it-or-shut-it philosophy that helped propel Republicans into the House majority last year.
The survey, conducted Aug. 18-22, found that approval of Congress has dropped to its lowest level in AP-GfK polling – 12 percent. That's down from 21 percent in June, before the debt deal reached fever pitch.
The results indicate, too, that the question of trust remains up for grabs – a sign that the government's stewardship of the economy over the next year will weigh heavily on the fortunes of both parties in the elections. Republicans and Democrats statistically tied, 40 percent to 43 percent respectively, when respondents were asked which party they trust more to handle the federal budget deficit. Nearly a third of independents said they trust neither party on the issue.
Much about the next election hinges on independent voters, the ever-growing group fiercely wooed by campaigns for years. These respondents, the poll found, were the least forgiving toward incumbents and shifted substantially toward the need to raise taxes as part of the deficit and debt solution.
Among them, 65 percent say they want their own House representative tossed out in 2012, compared with 53 percent of respondents generally.
This group, too, is helping fuel the shift toward raising taxes as a way to balance the budget. The poll found that among independents, 37 percent now say that increasing taxes should be the focus of the fiscal dealmakers, over cutting government services. That's up nine points from March, the poll found.
The backlash was personal, too. Boehner, the congressional veteran from Ohio who struggled to win enough members of his own party to pass the debt deal, won approval from 29 percent of the poll's respondents. That's the lowest such level of his tenure and also the first time his rating is more negative than positive. Forty-seven percent of Republican respondents said they approve of Boehner; only a fifth of independents have a favorable opinion of him.
"The tea party Republicans weren't going to let it happen, and Boehner kowtowed to them," said independent Dave Bernard, 51, a Santa Cruz, Calif., business owner. From across the country, it looked to Bernard like the GOP House members who refused to compromise weren't considering the substance of the deal and instead acted on a desire to "bring the president down."
"The old school Republican Party that my father was part of, they didn't work like that," Bernard said.
The tea party, too, took a hit, according to the poll. Unfavorable views of the tea party have climbed 10 percentage points since November, when they fueled the Republican resurgence. Of those, 32 percent have a deeply unfavorable impression of the movement and just a quarter of respondents say they consider themselves supporters of the tea party – the lowest in AP-GfK polling and a dip of 8 percentage points since June.
Overall, 87 percent disapproved of Congress' performance. Entrenched partisanship explained some of the discontent.
"They're so committed to their personal ways and party's way that they are having a hard time finding a middle road," Republican Frank Chase, 77, a military retiree from Hopkinton, Mass., said of both sides.
Democrat Laurie Lewis, a Rutgers University professor from Flemington, N.J., agreed with that much. "Elect those who are willing to make compromise on both sides of the hall," she said. Still, "I don't think it's smart to say throw out everyone."
On budget and debt policy, the poll finds a public warming to the idea of using tax increases to help solve the fiscal crisis, a potential boon to President Barack Obama and the congressional Democrats who want to end Bush-era tax breaks for the nation's wealthiest Americans. Republicans bristle at anything called a tax increase, though some acknowledge that more revenue must be raised.
It's perhaps the most difficult issue of the debate and carries tremendous influence over the nations' economic future and the political fortunes of the candidates next year, when the presidency and the House and Senate majorities are at stake. The problem now rests on the shoulders of a dozen House and Senate members named to a supercommittee that will spend the fall digging into the morass that the broader Congress couldn't solve.
Asked which should be the main focus of lawmakers trying to solve that problem, raising taxes or cutting government services, 53 percent of respondents said cutting services and 34 percent said increasing taxes. That's a shift toward raising taxes since March, when 29 percent said increasing taxes and 62 percent said cutting services.
Since then, more Democrats and independents have shifted toward taxes as a means of balancing the budget, while Republican views on the question have not moved, according to the poll. Half of Democrats polled said raising taxes should be the focus over cutting services, up 10 percentage points from March. Independents showed a clear preference for cutting services over raising taxes in March, 64 percent to 28 percent. Now, only 42 percent of independents say focus on cutting services while 37 percent say increase taxes, according to the poll.
Overall, 57 percent of respondents believe both that that taxes will rise and government services will be cut in order to balance the federal budget.
The poll was conducted by GfK Roper Public Affairs and Corporate Communications. It involved landline and cell phone interviews with 1,000 adults nationwide and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4.1 percentage points.
Poll results: http://www.ap-gfkpoll.com
Associated Press writers Ken Thomas, Kasie Hunt and Stacy A. Anderson and News Survey Specialist Dennis Junius contributed to this report.