WASHINGTON - The long war over judicial nominations comes to a head in the Senate this week, but opinion polls show that outside the Beltway, the focus is on issues much closer to home.
The disconnect seems to be souring many Americans on the people they sent here to represent them.
"The big theme of public opinion about Congress this year has been that they're not really addressing the issues that people really care about, and that goes for both parties," said Carroll Doherty, director of research at the Pew Research Center for People and the Press, which released a poll last week showing poor approval ratings for lawmakers in both parties.
A second poll, conducted for The Wall Street Journal and NBC News, also reflects disillusionment with Congress and growing concerns about the economy.
The filibuster fight, though considered crucial to people on the far ends of the political spectrum, "really doesn't touch the lives of most Americans," Doherty said. "What's touching the lives of most Americans is angst about jobs and concern over rising gas prices, and concerns over health care, which is something that barely gets mentioned in Washington these days."
As the filibuster debate consumes lawmakers, other priorities have been delayed, such as a final version of a sweeping highway bill, energy legislation and a discussion of how to solve long-term problems with Social Security. All of those issues have been lost amid the swirl of dueling news conferences and news releases over judges. And with each round, it seems, the partisan squabbling has grown louder and nastier.
The polls reflect voters' displeasure. In the Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, 33 percent of respondents said they approve of the job Congress is doing, and 51 percent said they disapprove. Forty-two percent said they think their representatives should be re-elected next year, a decline of 7 percentage points since October.
In the Pew poll, 35 percent of respondents said they approve of what Republican congressional leaders are doing, and 50 percent said they disapprove.
Democrats didn't fare much better. Thirty-nine percent of those polled said they approve of Democrats' performance, up slightly since March.
Bush's rating falls
Both polls show lackluster enthusiasm for President Bush. The Pew poll found his approval rating falling to 43 percent from 50 percent in January.
Senators, especially those trying to broker a last-minute compromise to defuse the filibuster battle, are keeping a wary eye on the polls. During a floor speech last week, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, a Connecticut Democrat, said the numbers "should be taken as a warning to us" and as a reminder that there are more important things than political fights over judges.
"I think the public is fed up with the partisanship here," he said. "I think they want us to get something done."
The fight over judges follows by two months Congress' decision to get involved in the polarizing case of Terri Schiavo and comes on the heels of weeks of headlines questioning the ethics of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, a Texas Republican who faces allegations that he allowed lobbyists to pay for some of his overseas trips.
In the Schiavo case, the House and Senate pushed through an 11th-hour bill that sent to the federal courts the question of whether the severely brain-damaged woman's husband could remove her feeding tube.
That effort not only failed to change the outcome, but it riled a large segment of the public and fed the simmering debate over judges when DeLay blamed them for Schiavo's death.
Thomas E. Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who follows Congress, said lawmakers' sinking approval ratings are matched by people's declining confidence in President Bush. They reflect unhappiness with the economy and the war in Iraq, he said, and unease about the majority party's efforts to deal with Social Security. The Schiavo case and questions about ethics also color people's views, he said.
"In pursuit of their ideas and core constituencies, Republicans appear to have overplayed their hand with the broader public," Mann said. "The filibuster fight is one small part of a larger problem."
Barring a deal, the brawl over judges will heat up Tuesday, when the Senate is scheduled to vote to end debate on the nomination of Texas Supreme Court Justice Priscilla R. Owen to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans.
If Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist can't get the 60 votes he needs to stop the debate, he will try to change the rules to allow a simple majority vote for judicial nominations.
That change has been dubbed the "nuclear option" by members of both parties because of the likelihood that it would shatter any remaining vestige of bipartisanship in the Senate. Democrats have threatened to throw up procedural roadblocks if the change goes through.