WASHINGTON - Sniping and snide remarks are out on Capitol Hill. Being nice and seeking common ground -- or at least appearing to -- are suddenly in.

Since returning from their summer recess earlier this month, lawmakers have heeded the strong message from an infuriated public: Stop squabbling, fix the economy and act like adults.

While this new era of good feeling doesn't necessarily mean compromise on big economic issues is imminent, this much is clear:

"I think the polling data got their attention," said John Pitney, a professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College in California and the author of "The Art of Political Warfare."

The data show that Congress' approval ratings remain dismal. On Friday, the latest New York Times-CBS News poll shows only 12 percent of Americans now approving of the way Congress is handling its job. The approval rating for Congress matched its all-time low, recorded in October 2008 at the height of the economic crisis.

Nothing frightens politicians like numbers that low, especially when the economy remains sluggish, consumer confidence is bleak and businesses are reluctant to hire.

"I think GOP leaders, at least, see that jobs and the economy are going into the tank," said Burdett Loomis, a professor of political science at the University of Kansas and the author of several books about Congress.

"They see the possibility that obstructing the Obama proposals, or at least appearing not to negotiate in good faith, might cost them politically."

They know well how fast an angry public can turn on a political party; last year, Republicans took control of the House of Representatives with 87 GOP freshmen winning seats. And with the nation's unemployment rate at 9.1 percent and the economy barely growing, incumbents of both parties see themselves as vulnerable.

Republican pollster Bill McInturff found that public disgust with the summer debt-ceiling standoff had eroded confidence in the economy and the federal government profoundly, on a scale similar to the 9/11 terrorist attacks and Hurricane Katrina. That, McInturff warned in an analysis earlier this month, could lead to "unstable and unpredictable political outcomes" in next year's elections.

Still, the outlook remains murky on the fate of this fall's two major initiatives: President Obama's $447 billion jobs initiative and the bipartisan supercommittee's effort to cut budget deficits by at least $1.2 trillion over the next 10 years.

On Friday, House Republican leaders sent their caucus members a long memo detailing their views of the jobs plan. "We believe there are areas of common agreement, and areas worthy of further conversation where agreement -- assuming there are good faith discussions -- may be possible," they said.

Rank-and-file members of both parties, though, are only cautiously optimistic.

"We really don't know what's going to happen," said Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., a key moderate.

But at least the rhetoric is far less hostile than it was during July and early August, when lawmakers from the two parties clashed bitterly over raising the debt ceiling.

Most notably, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., who stalked out of bipartisan debt deal talks in June and later engaged in a heated exchange with the president, has softened his tone.

"The rancor in this town over the last six months or so has proven that [bitter debate] doesn't necessarily produce the kind of result we want," Cantor said earlier this week. The change in tone could signal a change in substance as well.

Last month, a dispute over Federal Aviation Administration funding led to a partial shutdown of agency operations. This week, the Senate overwhelmingly approved extending the programs through January. The House already approved it, so it goes next to Obama for his signature.

Next week, Congress plans to consider a measure to fund the government through Nov. 18. The current fiscal year ends Sept. 30. Unless new spending is approved, agencies could shut down. Disputes over funding nearly caused a shutdown last spring. This time, the only major disagreement involves paying for disaster aid. Partisan brinksmanship appears unlikely. Lawmakers hope to pass the legislation by next Friday and recess the week of Sept. 26.

The bigger challenges, though, will be thornier as Obama details his long-term debt-reduction program and is expected to call for higher taxes.

The New York Times contributed to this report.