WASHINGTON — Lawmakers returned to Washington this week convinced that their constituents are tired of their bickering, but there was little evidence of an imminent outbreak of bipartisan cooperation to enact any major economic plan.
"The country doesn't want a blame game anymore," said House of Representatives Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., one of the fiercest partisans on Capitol Hill, and he listed some areas of agreement.
But despite holding dozens of town hall meetings around the country during their August recess, and polls showing Congress' approval ratings sinking to historic lows, common ground on a major jobs-creation initiative remains elusive.
Instead, lawmakers from the two major parties seemed to get widely different messages from the folks back home about what to do — if they were listening at all. Republicans heard that government was the problem. Democrats heard that government help is needed. In part the dual messages reflect that state legislatures draw House districts to maximize one-party ideological purity, so that lawmakers elected from them are under little pressure to compromise.
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House Assistant Democratic Leader James Clyburn of South Carolina recalled meeting with constituents at Voorhees College in Denmark, S.C.
"These people didn't want to hear me talking about spending cuts," Clyburn said. "They don't want to hear anything but jobs. They want us to see us focus on jobs."
But Republicans say that short-term stimulus programs aren't a serious answer to the nation's job crisis. Massive reductions in federal spending are a better antidote, in their view.
People "believe that the short-term fixes that are coming out of Congress are creating more uncertainty, more debt, more questions about taxes," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.
"There are too many "get-rich-quick schemes coming out of the White House," he said.
Many lawmakers are in no mood to give in.
"For us to compromise on something we fundamentally disagree on, I think that's why we have elections," said Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C.
Lawmakers left Washington for their summer recess in early August after weeks of ugly partisan turmoil over whether to raise the federal debt ceiling. The dispute was resolved just hours before the government faced a historic default.
The nation — for that matter, the whole world — let Congress know of its deep unhappiness with the gridlock and inability to govern. Standard & Poor's cut the nation's top AAA credit rating, which the country had for 70 years, to AA+. Financial markets quaked and stock indices remain far below their pre-July levels.
Polls show Congress' approval rating sinking sharply. An AP-GfK poll last month found that only 12 percent approved of how Congress was handling its job, down from 21 percent in mid-June.
Officially, Republican and Democratic lawmakers say they're getting the message.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Cantor sent Obama a conciliatory letter Tuesday.
"While we each sincerely believe that our own policy prescriptions for economic recovery are what is best for the country, neither of us is likely to convince the other in a manner that results in the full implementation of those policies," they wrote. As a result, they said, "We should not approach this as an all or nothing situation."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Wednesday that he agreed with their sentiment.
But underlying the surface comity was a simmering sense of unease and even tension from the heartland, and little hope for big agreements.
Many lawmakers ducked their constituents during the recess. An August telephone survey by No Labels, a bipartisan group that seeking to change Washington's hyper-partisan atmosphere, found that only 40 percent of House members scheduled town hall meetings during the five-week recess. Among House members, 67.9 percent of Democrats and 50.8 percent of Republicans said they didn't schedule town halls during the recess.
Often voters told those lawmakers they could find over the recess about intensely local concerns. In Southern states that rely heavily on agriculture and coal mining, voters were especially peeved at what they see as overly strict federal regulations.
"People are just mad," said Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, R-Ga. "They are mad because the government is spending too much money. They're mad about some of the regulations going around. And the business owners are telling me, 'We're not adding any new jobs because we don't know what regulations are coming down the pike that might increase our costs.' "
In contrast, in California, Democratic Rep. Jim Costa held no town hall meetings and the only demonstration that targeted the congressman was sponsored by nurses, urging support for social safety-net programs.
Pleas for action tended to be partisan.
Rep. Pete Olson, R-Texas, had three of his four town hall meetings disrupted by protesters who'd arrived in buses, spokeswoman Melissa Kelly said. They objected to spending cuts, she said, but the protests "sort of had the effect of uniting everyone else for the congressman."
In South Carolina, Gowdy said, "I learned that while the media is obsessed with the word 'compromise,' the people in the 4th District want a commitment to core principles coupled with a civility in the manner in which the message is delivered."
In Texas, Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar heard a different message.
"Stop the fighting. . . . Save Medicare. Cut spending. Don't cut my Social Security," summed up press secretary Jose Borjon.
From Missouri, Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill returned to Washington concerned about the battles to come.
"I think they see blood in the water," she said of Republicans. "They don't want to strengthen the president's hand by cooperating or reaching some sort of compromise."
(Halimah Abdullah, Curtis Tate, Maria Recio, Michael Doyle, James Rosen and David Goldstein contributed to this story.)
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