Jim Cole, Associated Press
HOOKSETT, N.H. — Fear and frustration course through the lunch crowd at Robie's Country Store and Deli, a popular outpost 500 miles from where Washington is again locked in tense negotiations over taxes and spending as a critical deadline looms.
"I'm worried," Lorraine Cadren of nearby Manchester says between bites of her chicken sandwich. Her doubt in the nation's elected leaders is palpable: "I'm not sure what's going to come out of Washington next." Not that she has the time to pay much attention; the 64-year-old is unemployed and preoccupied with finding a new job as Christmas approaches.
A few tables away, John Pfeifle shares Cadren's angst while trying to enjoy his $6.99 chicken parmesan special.
"Somebody's gotta have some smarts," says the 63-year-old business owner, complaining that both President Barack Obama and House Republicans seem willing to allow the nation to go over the "fiscal cliff," triggering broad tax increases and massive spending cuts that economists warn could lead to another recession.
"I have no faith at all they'll do the right thing," Pfeifle said of Congress.
And why would these voters have confidence in Washington?
The scene playing out on Capitol Hill is a familiar one as lawmakers with competing ideologies wage an 11th-hour battle to avert a predictable crisis. This one comes just a year after an equally divided Washington nearly let the country default on its loan obligations — a debt-ceiling debate that contributed to the electorate's deep lack of faith in their elected leaders and a drop in the nation's credit rating.
Evidence of Congress' plummeting popularity is everywhere.
From New Hampshire diners to Colorado coffee shops, weary residents report widespread concern. They relate the debate in Washington over their tax dollars with their own lives: average Americans who are struggling every day to make ends meet. And already distracted by the holidays and tired of politics after a bitter presidential campaign, they are calling on Washington to get its act together.
"It's pathetic. Nobody's doing their job," said Laura Hager, a retiree from Lancaster, Pa. "The rest of the country is being held hostage to this entire situation."
She said the uncertainty makes it difficult to shape a personal financial plan; she can't imagine what business leaders must be going through. "Nobody can plan. Nobody knows what they'll do," she said.
Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., warned that the public's disgust with Congress would reach new heights if lawmakers and the White House fail to reach an accord before the year-end deadline.
"Ninety percent disapproval rating is going to go up to 99 percent disapproval," the senator said at a panel discussion last week in Washington on the fiscal cliff's impact on businesses.
Warner overstated Congress' unpopularity, although not by much.
A recent Associated Press-GfK poll found that 74 percent of Americans disapprove of the way Congress is handling its job; just 23 percent approve. The figures are virtually unchanged from June and slightly above Congress' recent low point of 12 percent approval during the debt ceiling debate in August 2011.
Some voters are trying to ignore the debate altogether, although near-constant news coverage is making that difficult, especially as Obama and his Republican opponents work to rally their supporters.
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