Numbers, Facts and Trends Shaping Your World

Disengaged Public Leans Against Changing Filibuster Rules

Approval of Bush, GOP Leaders Slips

Summary of Findings

As the Senate prepares for a showdown on the use of the filibuster against some of President Bush’s judicial nominees, the issue remains mostly off the public’s radar. But public opinion ­ especially among the roughly one-third of the public who has paid at least fairly close attention to the issue ­ tilts against changing Senate rules to prohibit filibusters against judicial nominees.

The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, conducted May 11-15 among 1,502 Americans, finds that by 37%-28%, the general public opposes changing the Senate rules to stop the use of filibusters against judicial nominees. But a relatively large number of Americans (35%) have no opinion on the matter. Among the minority who have followed the story fairly or very closely, a majority (54%) opposes changing the rules on Senate filibusters.

About as many Americans blame President Bush (38%) as blame congressional Democrats (34%) for the stalemate over judicial nominees. Opinion on the broader principles involved in the filibuster debate is decidedly mixed. While 62% believe the Senate’s minority party should be able to block nominees they feel strongly about, a majority (53%) says that President Bush should be able to appoint anyone he wants to the courts if a majority of senators agree.

The survey shows that Washington’s springtime battles are generally not resonating ­ interest in the ethics complaints against House Majority Leader Tom Delay is even lower than in the filibuster controversy. However, these fights are taking a toll on opinions of the nation’s political leaders. President Bush’s overall job approval rating stands at 43%, down from 49% in late March. That equals the lowest mark in Bush’s presidency (43% in April 2004).

Nearly two-thirds (64%) say Republicans and Democrats in Washington have been bickering and opposing one another more than usual this year, continuing an upward trend. This is a stark contrast to the beginning of Bush’s first term in office ­ both before and after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks ­ when a significant proportion saw the parties working together more to solve problems.

Although neither party is escaping blame, the damage to the Republican Party’s image may be more severe. Just 35% of Americans say they approve of the job Republican leaders in Congress are doing; 50% disapprove, up from 44% in March of this year, and 42% a year ago. Public approval of Democratic leaders is only slightly higher (39% approve, 41% disapprove), but has remained unchanged over the past two years.

These generally unfavorable views may have political ramifications for incumbents seeking reelection in 2006. While by more than two-to-one (49%-23%), more say they approve than disapprove of their own representative in the House, this is comparable to measures of satisfaction in the summer of 1993, a year before the historic midterm elections in 1994 in which the Democratic Party lost its majority in the House.

Attentive Americans Oppose Rule Change

The public is paying relatively little attention to the senate dispute over judicial nominees. Just 14% say they are following the issue very closely, with another 20% following fairly closely. About equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans are following the issue. But reflecting the intensity of interest by interest groups that have engaged the issue, about one-in-five (22%) say they have seen, read, or heard advertisements that take sides on the issue. However, just 3% have received telephone calls about the issue.

Among the approximately one-third of the public paying at least fairly close attention to the filibuster issue, a small majority of 54% opposes the idea of changing the senate rules to stop the use of filibusters; 36% favor the change. People who are paying less attention are evenly divided (25% favor, 28% oppose), with nearly half (47%) holding no opinion. And among the attentive public on this issue, a plurality of 46 % say Bush is more responsible for the situation; 39% blame the Democrats.

Many Argue It Either Way

Public opinion on the filibuster issue is still very unsettled, as reflected by the high percentage of Americans who do not have an opinion on whether Senate rules should be changed (35%). This is partly a result of the low visibility of the issue, but it also stems from conflicting views about the underlying principles. Majorities agree with each of two opposing statements about the situation, and nearly one-third (31%) agree with both.

Over half of the public (53%) agrees that the Republican victory in the 2004 election entitles the president to pick anyone he wants if a majority in the senate agrees; 43% disagree. An even larger majority (62%) agrees that the lifetime terms of judicial appointments entitles the minority to block nominees about whom they feel strongly; just 30% disagree with this. Slightly less than half of the public holds consistent views on these two statements (agreeing with one and not the other).

Views on the first statement are very partisan, which is perhaps not surprising given the specific references to the Republican Party and to President Bush. More than eight-in-ten Republicans (84%) believe that the president should get his way, while 60% of Democrats disagree. Independents are evenly divided (48% agree, 49% disagree). But the principle that would give the minority party the ability to block appointments on which it feels strongly drew significant support among Republicans, with 53% agreeing and 42% disagreeing. Democrats were very supportive (by a margin of 70% to 23%), and most independents also agreed (64%-30%).

DeLay Story Not Resonating

Thus far, the controversy surrounding House Majority Leader Tom DeLay has attracted far less attention than the 1997 ethics case involving former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Only about three-in-ten (29%) are following news about the ethics complaints against DeLay very or fairly closely. In January 1997, fully twice as many (58%) paid at least some attention to news that Gingrich had been charged with violations by the House Ethics Committee.

With so little attention to this news story outside the Beltway, it is not surprising that half of the public is unable to make a judgment about whether or not DeLay is guilty of violating the ethical standards of the House. Of those who have an opinion, a 31% plurality believes he is guilty of violating House rules. Those following the story at least fairly closely think DeLay is guilty of ethics violations by better than a two-to-one margin (61% vs. 24%).

Republicans who paying at least some attention to the reports on DeLay are somewhat divided over whether he is guilty of violating the ethical standards of the House; 49% say he is not guilty, while 39% believe he is. As expected, Democrats who have been following this story very or fairly closely overwhelmingly believe DeLay is guilty (78%).

Over the past month, the high price of gasoline dominated the public’s news interests; 58% paid very close attention to reports on gas prices, up from 50% in March. Roughly four-in-ten (42%) followed news from Iraq very closely, little changed from March (40%).

The president’s Social Security proposal attracted very close attention from 36% of the public, while 30% closely followed news on the economy. Only about one-in-five (22%) tracked reports on the selection of the new pope very closely, and even fewer tracked the debate over the Senate filibuster rules (14%) and ethics complaints against DeLay (8%) very closely.

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