Brickbats, few bouquets, greet US lawmakers at home
* Many Americans turned off by torrid debt limit debate
* Gridlock dimmed views of Tea Party, also of Obama
* Put aside politics, create jobs, constituents say
By Pascal Fletcher
MIAMI, Aug 15 (Reuters) - For weeks during the rancorous debate over the U.S. debt ceiling limit, Americans were treated to the widely televised spectacle of their lawmakers drubbing each other in a bruising partisan jousting match.
When members of Congress returned home from Washington for their summer recess this month, many received a pummeling in turn from constituents furious over the debt and deficit squabbling and also fretting about their livelihoods.
Lawmakers have reported being swamped with texts, e-mails, social media messages and calls to their personal cell phones from angry voters, while some faced head-on hostile questioning at town hall meetings and other public events.
Many voters heaped a Shakespearean "pox on both their houses," blaming Republicans and Democrats for the point-scoring partisan brinkmanship that led the world's most powerful democracy this month to a humiliating credit rating downgrade and loss of face in the eyes of the world.
Craig Verniel, 35, an Orlando cell phone tower designer, told Reuters he was disgusted by the debt ceiling debate.
"They made us look like a laughing stock in front of the whole world," said Verniel, who stopped while jogging to watch a rally this month organized by the conservative Americans For Prosperity Foundation at Orlando's downtown Lake Eola Park.
Few Americans seemed happy with the painfully produced deficit-cutting compromise -- whose lack of definition looked like ideal kindling for future feuding -- that was hammered out shortly before an Aug. 2 debt ceiling rise deadline to avoid a potentially catastrophic U.S. default.
The finger-pointing has revved up the Republicans' search for a candidate to challenge President Barack Obama in the 2012 election. The Democratic incumbent is fighting to dispel a crisis of confidence in his leadership. [ID:nN1E77B1EG]
At a recent opening of a community health center in rural North Carolina, Democratic Representative Brad Miller ran into widespread popular frustration with Congress. He said the mood of voters was more fearful than he has ever encountered in five congressional terms and eight years as a state legislator.
"People are very worried about the economy and are very worried about the ability of the federal government to respond to it, and the very real possibility Congress will do something that will push us into a recession or worse," he said.
A New York Times/CBS News poll published Aug. 4 found a record 82 percent of Americans disapproved of the way Congress was doing its job. More than four out of five surveyed felt the recent debt ceiling debate was more about gaining political advantage than doing what was best for the country.
A Reuters/Ipsos poll found 73 percent of Americans saw the United States as "off on the wrong track." [ID:nN1E779101]
IRRESPONSIBLE "NUTS" OR PRINCIPLED PURISTS?
Among the 50 or so people who turned up for the Eola Park event near Orlando was real estate salesman David McGregor, 62, who said the debt limit debate and its fallout -- it led to a sharp selloff and whipsawed trading on global markets -- was a useful wake-up call for overspending America and its leaders.
"I'm glad to see the market doing what it's doing. It says, 'Hey, you better pay attention to this,'" McGregor said.
He is a member of the Tea Party, the feisty grassroots conservative movement that helped Republicans win control of the House of Representatives in 2010 and whose deficit cutting strategy involves a hardline "no new taxes" mantra.
The Tea Party's "hold the line" fiscally conservative stance clearly stiffened the Republican negotiating position in the debt limit talks, and led to Democrats and critics accusing the movement of holding the country hostage to ideology.
Olivia Bottoms, 64, from Person County, North Carolina, said she was a Republican, but added she was irritated about how hardliners brought the nation to the brink of default.
"It's like a kidnapping, taking a hostage. It's not terrorism as such, but it does strike terror in the hearts of people that have one income or are living on a fixed income they think is going to be snatched away from them," said Bottoms, a retired school teacher.
"It's a dangerous game for the politicians and I think it could backlash," she added.
"I gotta admire their (the Tea Party's) conviction, but I think they're nuts," said Douglas De Clue, 45, an Orlando engineer and Democrat. He was one of 39,000 people who have signed a petition calling for no cuts to the government-run Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid entitlement programs.
A conservative Florida Republican, Representative Allen West, took heat from Tea Party backers for voting for the compromise bipartisan debt limit deal.
But the freshman congressman, a 22-year U.S. Army veteran, was unrepentant. "I'm not going to play Russian roulette with the debt obligations of the United States of America," he told an event for retirees in Boca Raton last week.
Tea Party-aligned lawmakers pushed back angrily against jibes of a "Tea Party downgrade," which sought to put the blame for the U.S. credit rating slip on conservative Republicans.
"Thank God for all those troublesome House Republicans ... (who) have forced this town (Washington) to finally get serious about spending, that's a good thing," Illinois Republican Representative Joe Walsh told CNN.
"WHERE ARE THE JOBS?"
Besides the Tea Party, popular blowback after the debt limit debate also scalded President Obama.
Some Democrats expressed disappointment that the president had not fought back more against Republican pressure to cut entitlement programs and had not pushed harder for including higher taxes for the rich in the deficit-cutting package.
"He's just not showing enough backbone. In the end, he failed to stand up for Democratic principles," De Clue said.
A message constituents of all political colors seemed anxious to hammer home was that jobs, not political point-scoring, should be lawmakers' top priority, as the U.S. unemployment rate stays stubbornly stuck above 9 percent.
"Where are the jobs?" chanted an angry crowd of some 200 demonstrators in West Chester, Ohio, last week when they banged on the door of the offices of Congressional House Speaker John Boehner. Boehner was not present at the time.
Obama set off on Monday on a bus tour of the U.S. heartland focused on jobs. [ID:nN1E77E0YU]. And lawmakers also seemed to be getting the message.
"Washington needs to put the partisan posturing aside and focus like a laser beam on jobs. Jobs are my No. 1 priority right now," said Senator Kay Hagan, a North Carolina Democrat. (Additional reporting by Tom Brown in Miami, Harriet McLeod in Charleston, S.C., Ned Barnett in Raleigh, N.C., Barbara Liston in Orlando, Fla., and Sean Peters in West Chester, Ohio; Editing by Paul Simao)
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