Retiring Sen. Evan Bayh says voters across the country could deliver "a shock" to Congress if lawmakers don't work in more harmony and drop rampant partisanship.
In a nationally broadcast interview Tuesday, the Indiana Democrat said, "The extremes of both parties have to be willing to accept compromises" in order to accomplish things for the national good.
Bayh denied that he had an interest in running for president and said on ABC's "Good Morning America" that he told President Barack Obama on Monday that he would support his re-election. Bayh also said he thinks voters are in a mood to turn out many incumbents "until we change this town, until we reform Congress."
Two-term Sen. Evan Bayh says ever-shriller partisanship and the frustrations of gridlock made it time for him to leave Congress. Republicans aren't buying it, saying he and fellow Democrats sense that voters will be after their heads this fall.
Bayh, a moderate who came close twice to being added to his party's national ticket, said Monday he will not seek re-election in November. The announcement gives Republicans a strong chance of capturing his seat and makes it likelier that the 59 votes that give Democrats command of the 100-seat Senate will dwindle.
Bayh, 54, said his passion for helping people is "not highly valued in Congress." He said he does not love the institution in which his father, Birch, also had represented Indiana.
"My decision should not be interpreted for more than it is, a very difficult, deeply personal one," Bayh said in a statement he read in Indiana. "I am an executive at heart. I value my independence. I am not motivated by strident partisanship or ideology."
In another swipe, he said he wanted to work in the private sector, perhaps running a business, university or charity, for "solutions not slogans, progress not politics."
Bayh's disillusionment with the Senate came as no surprise to other Democrats.
"The story line that people want is to say this was all about the bad political environment," said John Anzalone, a Democratic pollster. "But I believe it's about the bad quality of life" in the Senate caused by long hours and constant bickering.
"It's not like going to work every day, it's like going to war," Dave Nagle, a Democratic political activist and former congressman from Iowa, said in an interview. "You can only hear the bugle on the Hill so many times, then you grow tired of it. It just isn't worth it."
Republicans saw a more partisan motivation in Bayh's departure.
"The fact of the matter is Senator Evan Bayh and moderate Democrats across the country are running for the hills because they sold out their constituents and don't want to face them at the ballot box," said Michael Steele, chairman of the national Republican Party.
GOP pollster Neil Newhouse saw Bayh's decision through the prism of the GOP's startling capture of the Senate seat in Massachusetts that the late Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy had held.
"Don't kid yourself. Scott Brown claims another victim," Newhouse said of Massachusetts' new GOP senator. "It's mostly Democrats seeing the handwriting on the wall."
Bayh joins a growing roster of recent Democratic retirees. Others include Rep. Patrick Kennedy of Rhode Island and Sens. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut and Byron Dorgan of North Dakota. Yet the congressional casualty list has a decidedly bipartisan flavor, with recent retirement announcements coming from Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., and GOP House members from Michigan, Indiana, Arkansas, and Arizona.
"Whether you're a Republican or a Democrat, you've probably had some very nasty town hall meetings lately, and most normal human beings don't enjoy being yelled at," said Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont-McKenna College in Claremont, Calif. "Democrats stand to lose more than Republicans because they're the in party, but Republicans are catching some of this too."
Democrats have a 255-178 edge in the House, with two Democratic-held seats vacant.
The public has been upset by job losses, growing federal deficits and spending, huge bonuses awarded to executives of bailed-out financial institutions, and Washington's yearlong preoccupation with healthcare. One need look no further than recent polls to gauge the poisonous political atmosphere facing members of Congress seeking re-election:
- In an Associated Press-GfK poll in mid-January, just 32 percent approved of how Congress was handling its job, including just 4 percent strongly approving, though Democrats got higher marks than Republicans. People were split about evenly over whether they wanted their own members of Congress to be re-elected, an unusually poor showing. And while nearly everyone named the economy as the most important issue, just one in five considered the economy in good shape.
- A CBS News/New York Times poll in early February found 81 percent saying it's time to elect new people to Congress. Just 8 percent said most members deserve re-election.
Bayh's departure sent deeper shock waves than most. Telegenic and considered by some to have a promising national future, Bayh is known more for the moderate tone of his politics than for any particular legislative achievements. His parting words Monday had a notably plaintive tenor.
"To put it in words most Hoosiers can understand: I love working for the people of Indiana, I love helping our citizens make the most of their lives, but I do not love Congress," Bayh said.
Associated Press writers Ken Kusmer and Tom Davies in Indianapolis contributed to this report.
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