Congress Works To Mend Economy, Approval Ratings

House Majority leader Eric Cantor is pushing a package of small business bills that also has the support of President Obama. The rare instance of cooperation could mark a change in strategy for the House following historically low approval numbers for Congress and rising poll numbers for the president.

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This week, the Republican leaders of the House unveiled a jobs proposal. It bears some resemblance to a proposal made by President Obama last September, and the president says he backs the Republican plan.

NPR's Sonari Glinton reports on what's behind a sudden burst of bipartisanship.

SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: Back in September, President Obama stood before a joint session of Congress to talk about jobs. At the time the unemployment rate had been stuck at about 9 percent for the first eight months of the year.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The question is whether, in the face of an on-going national crisis, we can stop the political circus and actually do something to help the economy.

GLINTON: The president introduced a plan called The American JOBS Act - mainly tax cuts that were intended to spur hiring. Then he went out to sell his proposal to the American people.

OBAMA: Pass this bill. If you want construction workers on the worksite, pass this bill. If you want teachers in the classroom, pass this bill. If you want small business owners to hire new people, pass this bill.

GLINTON: Congress did not pass that bill. And for a while there, the idea that both parties were going to get together and pass major legislation looked pretty grim. And in the interim, Congressional approval ratings - already low - fell to historic lows. Then last month, one of the major parts of the president's plan - an extension of the payroll tax cut - passed with bipartisan support. And then earlier this week, members of the House Republican leadership made a proposal. Here's majority leader Eric Cantor.

REPRESENTATIVE ERIC CANTOR: We are here to make sure that we can jumpstart this economy. We are here all behind what's called the JOBS Act, that we'll be voting on in the House next week.

GLINTON: It's not the American JOBS Act the president proposed, but the Jumpstart Our Business Startups Act. It's a collection of bills that had been supported already. They streamline regulations, make it easier for startups to raise money and less expensive for them to go public. The idea is to spur small business and job growth. Republican Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia says she's backing the legislation in part because of questions she got from constituents.

REPRESENTATIVE SHELLEY MOORE CAPITO: Are you guys ever going to do anything together? And I don't think they're meaning us together. They mean us as Americans, yes, but as Republicans and Democrats. And this is something we agree on.

JULIAN ZELIZER: House Republican and the Republican Party in general have been vulnerable on one big issue, and that issue is that they're not doing enough to deal with the economy.

GLINTON: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He says normally, members of Congress, regardless of party, don't really care about what national polls say - that is, until they affect the presidential race.

ZELIZER: I do think they are worried that they are part of the reason that the presidential candidates are doing poorly or having trouble selling themselves to the electorate, because this do-nothing label is starting to stick.

GLINTON: Zelizer says the calculation is not a desire to compromise with the president, but not hurt the presidential nominee.

ZELIZER: Something like a jobs bill might turn into not just a platform to talk about, but something from which a deal could be cut to, you know, undercut President Obama's argument that Republicans do nothing about jobs.

GLINTON: Zelizer says President Harry Truman famously ran a campaign against a do-nothing Congress. What many Republicans today might remember is that Truman continued to run and win against that do-nothing Congress after they made some serious compromises with him. Sonari Glinton, NPR News, the Capitol.

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