CHICAGO — As Americans watched yet another political drama play out on Capitol Hill — this time over whether to extend the payroll tax cut and jobless benefits — they had 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 think that both parties have been listening too much to their far ends."
Regardless of their backgrounds, incomes or political leanings, people 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.
On Thursday, House Republicans finally caved to demands by President Barack Obama, congressional Democrats and fellow Republicans for a short-term renewal of payroll tax cuts for all workers. The breakthrough almost certainly spares workers an average $20 a week tax increase Jan. 1.
After days of wrangling that even Speaker John Boehner acknowledged "may not have been politically the smartest thing in the world," the Ohio Republican abruptly changed course and dropped demands for immediate holiday season talks with the Senate on a full-year measure that all sides said they want.
The House and Senate plan to act on the two-month extension today.
House Republicans were under fire from their constituents and GOP establishment figures incensed that they would risk losing the tax cut issue to Democrats at the dawn of the 2012 presidential and congressional election year.
"In the end House Republicans felt like they were re-enacting the Alamo, with no reinforcements and our friends shooting at us," said Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas.
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.
"The Senate ... should have tried to stay and resolve this for the American people," said Jorge Gonzalez, an accounting clerk at a law firm in Miami. "Partisan politics should be set aside for the best interest of the country."
Many Americans stewed about the inaction.
"I wish those guys would come and finish the job they started and deserted," said Sandi Dumich, a retired teacher from Schaumburg, Ill., who has taken a part-time job in a neuropsychologist's office to help pay bills.
At Augie & Ray's, a popular eatery in East Hartford, Conn., the consensus among several diners 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.
But Scott Gessner, a Boston man who works with homeless women and children, said he's suspicious of House Republican demands for a yearlong extension.
"We can't repeal Bush's tax hikes for the extremely wealthy, but we are going to let this one expire, which affects millions of millions of millions of more people and the middle class?" Gessner said. "What I'd like to know is ... what do the Democrats have to give up to get the one-year bill?"
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, and some said they would spend less on non-essential things, like dining out.
Others, though, said they were willing to pay more if it means reducing the deficit.
"I understand every dollar is every dollar, but I think there are some bigger problems that we have here that can put a lot more money in your pocket than a $20 payroll tax," said Thomas Lowndes, who owns a real estate investment business in Charleston, S.C., and was in Louisville, Ky., for a basketball game.
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."
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.
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"It's a fight between the parties. It's really not about the citizens," said Sandra Robinson, an administrative officer at the Department of the Interior in Little Rock, Ark., who depends on the extra money to help pay her daughter's college tuition.. "They don't care about us."
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."