WASHINGTON -- Bob Krogman, an Air Force veteran who survived three helicopter crashes over North Vietnam, leaves little doubt about what he thinks of politicians when asked about the debt ceiling debate in Washington.
"(Politicians) care about themselves, and that's the way it's always been since I was in the military," said Krogman, 60, hobbling on crutches outside the St. Louis VA Medical Center, where he went for an exam on his troubled lungs.
He fights back tears. "I'm furious. I hate them."
As the intense debate continues among House Republicans, Senate Democrats and the White House over whether to raise the debt ceiling and under what conditions, Americans have grown anxious. And after President Barack Obama urged people to contact their representatives and senators, they did – by the thousands – through phone calls, emails and picket lines.
The Associated Press interviewed people across the country Wednesday and found that, whatever their political leanings, frustration about the debt debate itself was the most commonly held view. Voters do not know how the debt showdown got to this point, at the brink, just days away from the United States being unable to pay all its bills.
In Washington, members of both parties, across the ideological spectrum, have reported a huge uptick in voter contact in recent days. The office of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., for example, reported double the call volume. GOP House members have had their websites crash, and the House's technology center warned offices earlier this week that telephone lines serving House office numbers were nearing capacity.
Members and aides say virtually every side has chimed in – those who don't want the debt ceiling raised at all, those who favor sharp budget cuts, those who want to raise taxes on the rich and points in between. And many told the AP they just want a deal struck, even if it means compromise.
That's what pushed Denise Cox, a western Pennsylvania nursing home worker, to picket the district office of Rep. Jason Altmire, D-Pa., earlier this week. Altmire, a conservative Democrat, hasn't yet backed any of the competing debt limit plans.
Cox thinks Republicans and Democrats alike should stop catering to corporate interests, drop the "us vs. them mentality," and "worry more about what's best for the American people."
She said she worries about the impact a federal default would have on residents of the county-run nursing home in Beaver, Pa., most of whom are Medicaid recipients, as well as on unionized workers at the facility. Yet she also worries that any debt deal that emerges will have a disproportionate impact on the working and middle classes.
"On both sides of the aisle, they all claim to be so smart. So how did we get to this point? It didn't happen overnight. All of these supposedly intelligent people brought us to this point, and now they are scrambling to see who they can take money from," said Cox, 47, of Ohioville, Pa. But "it shouldn't be up to us to solve the problems and the mistakes that were made."
In Louisiana, Al Sunseri says he's called both his New Orleans-area congressmen, one a Democrat, one a Republican, urging them to get a deal done – but he is pushing for a more conservative approach.
"I've told them to pay the bills and get a balanced budget amendment because they can't control themselves anymore," said Sunseri, co-owner of P&J Oyster Co., on the edge of New Orleans' French Quarter. Last year's oil spill depleted the availability of oysters from the company's traditional sources, leading to more than a dozen layoffs and a shoestring operation run by him and his brother Sal.
A default would be bad for business, Sunseri said, but he also wants the government to stop spending more than it takes in, even if that means drastic cutbacks in government.
"I did not like laying off people," he said. "It came down to a matter of dollars and cents."
In Ohio, Mike Wilson wants more cuts than are being talked about. The leader of one of the Buckeye State's first tea party groups, Wilson said he's pressured Ohio's delegation to take a harder line on cuts.
"Our folks are scared that we're going to get sold out by the Republican leadership," Wilson said. "That is one of the reasons why you have a tea party, the perception that the leadership is willing to compromise too quickly."
In Washington, politicians say they are listening, that they get regular readouts on the flow of constituent calls and hear voters' unrest. But outside of Washington there is still a belief that the politicians just don't get it.
At Post Office Square, a grassy haven surrounded by banks and investment firms in Boston's financial district, Robert Lydon said he was tired of the political gamesmanship and wanted Washington to get a deal. He blamed both parties.
"They're fiddling while Rome is burning," Lydon, a pipefitter from Cohasset, Mass, said during a midday break. "They're playing to their egos and not thinking about the regular person on the street like me."
Woonsocket, R.I., resident Miranda Ledouceur, 28, said she blames President Barack Obama for the standoff. But the Republicans in Congress aren't much better, she said. She worries about the effect a default would have on government assistance programs like food stamps, Medicaid and disability benefits.
"If they don't fix this there will be a lot of people on the street," she said. "Things are bad enough already."
Associated Press writers Jim Suhr in St. Louis, Michael Rubinkam in Allentown, Pa., Dan Sewell in Cincinnati, David Klepper in Providence, R.I., Carolyn Thompson in Buffalo, N.Y., Johanna Kaiser in Boston, Don Thompson in Sacramento, Calif., and Kevin McGill in New Orleans contributed to this report.