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.
In a campaign-style event Monday in Michigan, the heart of industrial America, Obama warned that he "won't compromise" on his demand that the wealthiest Americans pay more in taxes. Polls find that most voters agree with the president's deficit-cutting plan to raise tax rates on income over $200,000 for individuals and $250,000 for couples, although House Republicans are reluctant to agree.
The conservative group Crossroads GPS is running television ads across the country describing Obama's solution as "a huge tax increase" with "no real spending reforms." ''Call President Obama and tell him it's time to show us a balanced plan," the ad says.
Most voters interviewed in recent days are calling for an immediate compromise and seem willing to raise taxes on the wealthy so long as the middle class is protected.
There is a vague sense that the "fiscal cliff" is more serious than other recent Capitol Hill clashes. But barely a month after the presidential contest ended, most people say they're not following the daily developments that consume Washington.
In a Denver coffee shop, interior designer Roxann Lloyd, 42, is mystified by the sound and fury out of Washington over the cliff.
"I don't think they have any idea what a big deal is to an average person," she said. "I'm just ignoring it."
Lloyd said she isn't surprised by the partisan bickering over the issue. "I don't feel like they are really looking out for us," she said of Congress.
John Baker, 65, a Denver psychologist, said he had little faith in Congress' ability to fix the problem: "I don't think Congress can fix a flat tire."
"It's a typical Washington, 'Let's hit the panic button and keep people scared so they will let us do what we want to do,'" Baker said in a downtown Denver Starbucks. "Ultimately, it will be fixed but not until a lot of pockets are lined."
It's unclear whether members of Congress are hearing the message.
Rep. Charlie Bass, a New Hampshire Republican who lost his re-election bid last month, says it's unclear whether his GOP colleagues will "face the reality that the president, at least at this point, is not going to accept anything other than a tax rate increase."
A stalemate would result in "painful uncertainty," Bass said, offering his caucus a bit of advice: "We best get on with it — get it done."
Back at Robie's, store owner Debbie Chouinard says she's burned out from election season and "tired of all the bull."
"I honestly haven't been paying attention," she said while feeding her 2-year-old granddaughter lunch during a brief lull. "People should be working together to get this country going."
Associated Press writers Nicholas Riccardi in Denver and Bill Barrow in Atlanta contributed to this report.
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