CHICAGO — 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 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.
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."
President Barack Obama is urging congressional leaders to return to Washington to pass a short-term payroll tax cut extension before New Year's Day, promising in return to start working immediately on a full-year extension. House Republicans have insisted that both chambers instead negotiate a full-year agreement by the end of the year.
Meanwhile, the public can only wait and wonder — and stew.
"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 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.
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.
"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."
Associated Press writers Christine Armario in Miami, Shannon Dininny in Yakima, Wash., Robert Jablon in Los Angeles, Steve LeBlanc in Boston, Ben Neary in Cheyenne, Wyo., Jeannie Nuss in Little Rock, Ark., Stephanie Reitz in East Hartford, Conn., and Bruce Schreiner in Louisville, Ky.; and AP videographer Robert Ray in Aurora, Ill., contributed to this story.