Some Americans harbor a modicum of sympathy for President Bush and members of Congress as they face difficult budget decisions, but others revile the government for wimping out in an election year or selling out poor people.
"They should get their hands out of our wallets," said computer operator Thomas Noteboom, 39, of Harrisburg, Pa. The government is "just padding for the rich, and the average working man has to carry the load."
In interviews throughout the country yesterday, Washington Post reporters and special correspondents asked Americans for their opinions on the nation's fiscal crisis and the failure of the House to pass the compromise budget agreement.
The vast majority of those interviewed in the unscientific survey expressed hope that Congress and the Bush administration would agree on a budget package but offered differing opinions on what it should look like. Several people viewed the deficit with dread, the harbinger of meaner times to come.
"I keep thinking of my 21-year-old son and my grandson," said Marv Tabolsky, a talent-agency executive living in Tarzana, Calif. "I wish we could leave them more hope in the coming years. I just don't know what the solution is."
Both the kindest and some of the cruelest comments about the performance of Congress came from some of those most likely to be affected should the government shut down or undergo massive across-the-board budget cuts known as a sequester.
"We go through this every time -- they hold the budget hostage -- and this time it's close to the election, so no one wants pass a budget that's unpopular," said an enraged Mike Brennan, 50, a civilian personnel director working for the Navy in Prince William County.
"No one wants to go home and say, 'I voted for reductions in your Medicare' or 'I voted for an increase in the tax on your beer. Vote for me.' It almost borders on the disgusting," he said. "There is a total vacuum of leadership."
Brennan said his job will be safe in sequester. Those with a more uncertain future tended to be more cautious.
"I think the problem is terribly complex," said Bonnie Leibel, 46, who expects to be furloughed from her job as a Veterans Administration analyst if there is a sequester. "The people in Congress are terribly worried about getting reelected. They have a problem no matter which way they vote."
The choices for the House in the vote early yesterday morning, as several federal employees outlined them, were two -- vote for the budget summit package and be thought of as hardhearted toward the middle class and working poor, or vote against it and be denounced as a milquetoast more worried about midterm elections than the nation's welfare.
"They're playing a game, and we're the ones who are involved," said Loretta Lewis, 33, a government secretary. "I wouldn't say the government's failing, but no one's willing to compromise. Everybody wants what they want, and no one's willing to give us anything."
Lewis, like Leibel, faces the possibility of furlough and is looking for a part-time job. She said she is living on her own for the first time in her life, "getting along from paycheck to paycheck." Now, she said "would be a very bad time" to be furloughed.
Outside of Washington, Americans tended to be less charitable. Most of those interviewed see the budget summit agreement as pro-business, anti-middle-class and anti-poor. Miami banker Bob Carter, 41, said he is glad that the House voted down the budget agreement because "it's a rip-off to the public. The citizens will suffer tremendously. They're looking out for the rich."
In New York, Lorraine Lamb, 33, a broadcast buyer in an advertising agency, was trying on hats in Saks Fifth Avenue when she was told about the House vote. "I'm not surprised really, because I think a lot of people were upset about the cutbacks in Medicare. That's the way I felt, too. It was really going to hurt people who couldn't afford it, like the elderly. I thought there should be another solution."
Asked to suggest a solution, she said, "Maybe taxing another group of people. You hate to hurt anybody, but maybe people who are in a better position to afford it."
Others agreed. Many of those interviewed described the budget dilemma as partisan war, with the Democratic Congress trying valiantly to protect the interests of the little people against a pull-out-all-the-stops assault on spending by Daddy-Warbucks Republicans.
"They were trying to place most of the burden on elderly and middle-class people like myself," said Willie Cardenas, 63, a Texas state office worker, who pronounced himself delighted that the House voted down the budget agreement. "It wasn't fair. I think Congress showed a lot of guts standing up to the president."
Still, The Post found just as many voices who faulted Congress for indecisiveness and failure to take action in a crisis. The reason, most insisted, was November elections.
"I thought it was kind of stupid and politically selfish," Darrel Nichols, a retired insurance executive in West Covina, Calif., said of the House vote. "I think the plan at this point is about as good as I can think of. I don't like parts of it, but it's probably the best we're going to get."
Less forgiving was David West, a business manager living in Venice, Calif., on the edge of Los Angeles about 30 miles from Nichols in West Covina. The House vote showed that members of Congress "were obviously more concerned with saving their asses and preserving their incumbencies than making a difficult choice and taking a risk."
Up the coast in Seattle, KING radio talk-show host Jim Althoff denounced Congress and the proposed budget agreement. "No one likes the new budget deal . . . because it's a stinker," said Althoff, 44. As for Congress, he added, "We ought to get rid of the whole bunch. They are ossified, petrified, so under the influence of special interests that they are unable to act."
Some Americans wanted Congress to take action because they found the debt patriotically insulting. "We're supposed to be No. 1 -- U.S.A.," said Richard Morales, 20, a Lazard Freres mail clerk eating lunch in Manhattan's Rockefeller Plaza. "We're supposed to be the top dog in the world, and now we're being bought up. Who do you think owns this area? The Japanese."
In other parts of the country, people worried about specifics. Barry Cal, 32, a Seattle advertising executive, said he objects to the budget agreement because it cut too much from health care, did not freeze defense spending or require foreign nations to pay their debts to the United States and did not set higher tariffs. "There are a lot of foreign businesses getting too many tax breaks," he said.
Tyron Young, 30, a District of Columbia employee and part-time cab driver, complained about gasoline taxes, since "the price of gas is killing me as it is." He also said he is no friend of liquor and luxury taxes. "I like to go out and have a night on the town every once in a while, but now it's getting so you can't do it anymore."
Young acknowledged that the budget dilemma is a "very difficult" matter that defied easy solution. Other Americans agreed, proclaiming a plague on everyone's house.
At the corner of 6th and Congress streets, the busiest corner in downtown Austin, Tex., haberdasher Ron Kercheville was asked his opinion of the budget crisis.
"The Red Sox will win in six," he said.
The question was rephrased. Who's to blame, Congress or the president?
"I told you, the Red Sox will win in six," he responded, referring to the Boston baseball team's forthcoming American League championship series with the Oakland Athletics. "I think that's the best answer anyone can give to any question about Washington politics."
Contributing to this report were staff writers Robert F. Howe in Alexandria, David Maraniss in Austin, Tex., and Jay Mathews in Los Angeles and special correspondents John M. Baer in Harrisburg, Pa., O. Casey Corr in Seattle, Laurie Goodstein in New York and Jon Leinwand in Miami.