As Americans watch yet another political drama play out on Capitol Hill — this time over whether to extend the payroll tax cut and jobless benefits — they have a question for Congress: Can't you all just get along? For once?
“It's like, 'Kids, kids, kids,'” said Brenda Bissett, a lawyer from Santa Clarita, Calif., as she waited for coffee Wednesday at a Starbucks in downtown Los Angeles. “It's just frustrating that there's no compromise … I do it all the time.”
Around the country, people of different backgrounds, incomes and political leanings say they're angry and downright disgusted by the posturing in Washington after the House rejected a two-month extension of the payroll tax cut passed by the Senate, then both chambers adjourned for the holidays.
If lawmakers don't act by Jan. 1, payroll taxes will jump almost $20 a week, or $1,000 a year, for a worker earning $50,000, and as much as $82 a week, or $4,272 a year, for a household with two high-paid workers. What's more, about 6 million people could lose unemployment benefits, and Medicare payments to doctors would be slashed.
“It's just another smack in our face for the working public. We just can't get ahead,” said Mike Pryor, a construction worker from Aurora, Ill. “It seems like everything that Congress is doing is always against us … I mean, I'm at a loss for words, and I just can't understand it, why they have to keep arguing.”
On Wednesday, President Barack Obama urged congressional leaders to return to Washington to pass a short-term payroll tax cut extension before New Year's Day, then work later on a full-year measure.
Leaders from both chambers say they want the other side to return, too, though they still disagree on whether it should be to negotiate a two-month extension or a one-year deal favored by House Republicans.
Meanwhile, the public can only wait and wonder — and stew.
At Augie & Ray's, a popular eatery in East Hartford, Conn., the consensus among several diners Wednesday was that the partisan bickering was eroding their already shaky faith in Congress. To some, that was just as frustrating as the idea that their paychecks could shrink.
“It's us, the average Joe, that's getting caught in the middle,” said Ray Ramsey, a retired utility meter technician who works part-time for a medical-supply company.
Fellow diner Richard Longo, who owns a building-maintenance business, said he worries about the effect of the taxes on himself and his 30-plus employees. But he thinks there's a lot of blame to go around.
“I truly believe that if the sides were reversed, if we had a Republican president and a Democratic Congress, we'd still be going through the same thing,” he said.
A payroll tax increase would come at a vulnerable time for some people who already have been affected by falling property values and, in some cases, state tax increases.
Some expected to spend less on non-essential things, like dining out. And others said they were willing to pay more if it means reducing the deficit. But almost all agreed that the partisan acrimony and 11th-hour crises in Washington are getting old.
“It seems they want to bring down everything to the last minute and then figure it out,” said David Kaiser, a researcher at a Miami college who said a tax increase wouldn't affect him significantly.
Kaiser wanted “some way to send that message to them: That's not what they're hired for.”
Mike Raney, a maintenance and repair worker from Chicago, said he blames the stalemate on “misguided ideals” among politicians of both parties.
“I'd like to say they mean well, but we're talking about politicians,” Raney said as he ate a hamburger at a McDonald's in Chicago's Loop. “It's very frustrating, especially for people who are just getting by. I mean, it's not like I'm making millions of dollars, but it's affecting other people a lot harder than it's affecting me.”
The tax cut lowered the Social Security tax on incomes of up to $106,800 from 6.2 percent to 4.2 percent. It's meant a maximum savings of $2,136 for an individual.
Without a deal, Americans would begin 2012 facing a tax increase just as an election year begins. And many say the bickering has more to do with elections than economic ideals.
“The way I see it is that the Republicans want Obama to be a one-term president,” said James Edwards, an Amtrak conductor from Hamden, Conn., who was in Boston on Wednesday. “They are taking their patriotism and throwing it away, and they are hurting the middle class. They want to make sure that America is hurting while this president is sitting so they won't vote for him in 2012.”
Anaiah Spencer, a property manager from Los Angeles, said the deadlock is damaging people's faith in lawmakers.
“I have never seen a government this divisive,” Spencer said. “In the end, we both end up broke, and we wind up with an entire country of angry citizens who don't know who to turn to.”
Greg Kirksey, a pastor in Little Rock, Ark., said a payroll tax increase would be little more than an inconvenience for him, but others are “talking about whether to buy dried beans or ground beef to get their protein.”
“But I'm afraid because it's a political year … I'm not thinking anybody's really got the guts to make the hard decisions,” he said. “They just keep putting a Band-Aid on, putting a Band-Aid on, kicking the can down the road a little farther.”