By Heidi Przybyla
Americans are warming to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and they give the Democratic-led Congress high marks for its initial legislative priorities.
A new Bloomberg/Los Angeles Times poll shows positive views of Pelosi, 66, climbed over the past month and are considerably higher than the marks Americans gave one of her highly publicized predecessors, Republican Newt Gingrich, in the first weeks of his tenure as speaker in 1995.
The poll conducted Jan. 13 to 16 showed even more support for the party's early priorities, including repealing subsidies for oil companies, cutting prescription-drug costs for seniors and raising the minimum wage, which were backed by large majorities of respondents. The House yesterday completed passage of these and other items the Democrats vowed to push through in the first 100 hours of the new Congress, which began Jan. 4.
``There's some honeymoon halo going on here,'' said David Mayhew, a professor at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut who has written several books on Congress. ``They made up a platform that they know is anchored well in public opinion.''
Still, the survey revealed warning signs that tougher times may lie ahead for the Democrats who won control of the House and Senate in the November elections. Even as almost two-thirds of respondents said they want the country to go in a different direction than President George W. Bush has charted, 58 percent said the Democrats hadn't formulated a clear course for the future.
In addition, only a plurality of respondents, 42 percent, had a favorable impression of Democrats in Congress, largely unchanged from previous recent polls.
Iraq was the dominant issue for poll respondents, 45 percent of whom said the war should be the top priority for the new Congress. Health care, including coverage for the uninsured, came in a distant second, with 20 percent of respondents saying it was their chief concern.
The poll of 1,344 adults has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
Positive perceptions of Pelosi, the first woman speaker of the House, have been increasing over the past month as her new prominence garnered her greater public exposure.
Thirty-four percent of respondents gave the 11-term California representative a favorable rating, up from 27 percent who did so in a poll conducted in December. Forty-one percent of those surveyed -- a plurality -- said they still hadn't heard enough about her to form an impression, down from 50 percent who had no opinion in December. Twenty-one percent rated her unfavorably, a number that is unchanged from the December poll.
By contrast, a Los Angeles Times poll in January 1995 found that Gingrich, who engineered the Republican congressional landslide in 1994, had more unfavorable ratings, at 39 percent, than favorable, at 26 percent. In September 1996, almost two years after he became speaker, Gingrich's negative rating reached 54 percent.
With the spotlight on Pelosi, 61 percent of respondents said they didn't know enough about her counterpart in the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, to form an opinion. That's down slightly from 65 percent in December.
Pelosi and her party also enjoy broad support for the seven legislative items they have passed in the House as part of their '100-Hour' agenda. The last of these, legislation repealing $7.7 billion in oil company tax breaks and closing a loophole in offshore drilling leases, was approved yesterday.
At least four-fifths of respondents said they back the measures cutting student loan interest rates in half, increasing the federal minimum wage by $7.25 from $5.15 over about two years, lowering prescription-drug prices and screening all cargo on U.S.-bound ships and planes.
Significant majorities also approve of the legislation repealing the tax breaks and subsidies for oil companies, enacting a new ethics package for Congress and increasing federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research.
Forty-seven percent of self-described Republicans said they back the stem-cell proposal, which Bush vetoed last year and continues to oppose.
The narrowest margin of support for any of the Democratic goals -- 51 percent to 26 percent -- goes to a plan to enact a so-called pay-as-you-go rule that requires Congress to offset new spending bills or tax breaks with spending cuts or tax increases.
Overall, disapproval of the job lawmakers are doing has declined, with negative ratings of Congress dropping from 57 percent in a September poll conducted when Republicans were in control, to 44 percent in the latest survey.
Some of the initial support for Democrats and their priorities could fade as Congress takes up more divisive issues, including the situation in Iraq. While most Democrats agree that the Bush administration has mismanaged the war, the party remains divided over whether to call for an immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces or withhold funding for the conflict.
``It's easy to say you don't want to have troops in Iraq, but what is the game plan?'' said Barry Gershowitz, an independent from Rock Tavern, New York.
Gershowitz, a 64-year-old retired banker, said he has a ``slightly'' more favorable impression of congressional Democrats than of Republicans. ``I'm looking for a breath of fresh air,'' he said. ``Hopefully I'll get it from the Democrats, but it remains to be seen.''