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GUY RAZ, HOST:

From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Guy Raz. It's long been the case that only a minority of Americans approves of the job Congress is doing, but last month, things hit a new low. For the first ever, a CBS New York Times poll showed Congress' approval rating had plunged to a single digit - 9 percent. Many lawmakers fear that number can, and likely will, get even worse after the congressional supercommittee failed to agree on a plan to cut the deficit. NPR's David Welna caught up with few of them as they struggled to make sense of their image problem.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: One evening a couple of weeks ago, Colorado Democrat Michael Bennet rose to speak in a nearly empty Senate chamber. Clearly exasperated, he warned his absent colleagues that their 9 percent approval rating was fast approaching the margin of error for 0 percent approval.

SENATOR MICHAEL BENNET: More people support the United States becoming communist - I don't, for the record - at 11 percent, than approve of the job that we're doing. I guess we can take some comfort that Fidel Castro is at 5 percent.

WELNA: The ranks of Congress haters would seem to be growing. But how do lawmakers themselves explain the low esteem they're held in?

SENATOR JOHN KERRY: It's not enough for people to say Washington is broken. It just is not enough.

WELNA: That's Senator John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat. Just minutes after the bipartisan supercommittee that Kerry sat on admitted failing to reach an agreement, he told reporters the question that had to be asked was, what is the problem?

KERRY: And I will say to you after these three months that it is clear to me that the problem is a huge ideological divide in our nation.

WELNA: That's Michigan Congresswoman Candice Miller's take on the problem, as well. Before heading home for the Thanksgiving break, the fifth-term Republican noted that voters did elect a divided government last year.

REPRESENTATIVE CANDICE MILLER: We are really a reflection of the country, I think, right now, because you have about half the country that probably want more government, more government spending, et cetera, more government regulation. You have the other half of the country that is saying no.

WELNA: But Vermont House Democrat Peter Welch doesn't think those stark differences should necessarily lead to congressional paralysis.

REPRESENTATIVE PETER WELCH: We're approaching this, both sides, as though this is an ideological battle to be won, rather than a practical problem to be solved.

REPRESENTATIVE CHELLIE PINGREE: I have to say, I agree. I'm frustrated with many of my colleagues in Congress and I'm kind of embarrassed for us.

WELNA: That's Maine House Democrat, Chellie Pingree, who's been in Congress nearly three years.

PINGREE: I mean, I feel like as a member of Congress, I do the right thing, and I'm on the side of right. But the fact is, if the entire institution can't act and can't move forward and can't find a way to work with the president in such tough economic times, we deserve the blame heaped back on us.

WELNA: Historically, Congress has resolved its differences and gotten things done through compromise. But Georgia House Republican Jack Kingston says compromise is not what everyone wants.

REPRESENTATIVE JACK KINGSTON: Every time I'm in the streets of my district, one person will grab me and say, don't you think it's about time you compromise? The next person will say, I'm sick and tired of your compromising. What's wrong with you? Can't you stand on principle?

WELNA: And that, says Norm Ornstein, is what makes it so hard for Republican lawmakers like Kingston simply to split the difference. A congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a right-leaning Washington think tank, Ornstein has been watching Congress and writing about it for decades. He says not even members from solidly GOP districts can feel safe these days making deals.

NORM ORNSTEIN: For Republicans in Congress right now, in the House especially, what they're looking at is primaries ahead. And we know a number of these Tea Party freshmen are much more worried about a challenge from the right in a primary, somebody saying he's gone Washington because he voted for something, than they are about what happens after that in the fall.

WELNA: Ornstein says he's not surprised Congress has just gotten its lowest approval rating ever. His last book about that institution, published five years ago, was titled, "The Broken Branch." The working title for his next book on the same subject is, "It's Even Worse Than It Looks." David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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