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Senator Evan Bayh's departure sparks debate about partisanship in Congress

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 17, 2010; A01

Sen. Evan Bayh's surprise decision not to seek reelection touched off a debate Tuesday among strategists and scholars about whether the Indiana senator's depiction of the "brain dead" politics and hyper-partisanship of Congress is accurate or overblown -- and, if accurate, whether walking away was the right decision.

Bayh dealt a triple blow to his Democratic Party and to President Obama with his announcement Monday that he is sick of the partisanship in Washington and will not seek a third term. The decision put his seat -- and, some forecasters said, possibly his party's Senate majority -- in jeopardy, sent a discomforting message to already demoralized Democrats about this year's political climate and reminded voters that Obama has yet to usher in the post-partisan era, a major theme of his 2008 campaign.

But it was as much Bayh's stated reasons for leaving as the consequences that stirred controversy. "If in fact he believed that the Senate was broken and dysfunctional, then he had a responsibility to stand and man the pumps rather than run for the lifeboat," said Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University.

During a round of early morning interviews Tuesday, Bayh responded to criticism that he had left his party in the lurch and defended his decision to retire rather than stay and try to fix the system. "If I could create one job in the private sector by helping to grow a business, that would be one more than Congress has created in the last six months," he said on CBS's "Early Show."

He also sought to squelch talk that he is disenchanted with Obama's agenda or has presidential aspirations, saying Obama is making "a sincere effort" to work with Republicans.

Still, Baker said Bayh's depiction of Congress overstates the case that lawmakers are dealing with something unprecedented in American politics. While acknowledging that there is "an extreme level of partisanship" right now, Baker said there have been other periods of partisanship and venomous politics in the Senate.

"I won't say it's cyclical, but from time to time . . . even the Senate goes berserk," he said. He cited the red-baiting era of the early 1950s, saying, "The McCarthy period was a terrible time, in which reputations were ruined, senators attacked each other and questioned each other's motives."

But there is no question that the Senate of Evan Bayh is a far different body than was the Senate of his father, Birch Bayh, who served there in the 1960s and 1970s. In those days, both parties were ideologically diverse, with liberals, moderates and conservatives in both caucuses.

"No matter where you stood on the spectrum, you had an ally in the other party," said David Rohde, a political scientist at Duke University. "Today, only if you are in the center do you have people who are like you [in the other party]."

Seesawing control

Rohde pointed to another and perhaps more critical change that has fundamentally altered the climate in both the Senate and the House: the fragility of control by either party. Since 1994, when Republicans ended 40 years of Democratic domination in the House and retook the Senate, control of both chambers has been at issue in virtually every election.

"Partisan control is extraordinary valuable for both political and policy reasons," Rohde said. "So every decision [made by lawmakers] has to take into account how it might affect probabilities of majority control. That makes it much more difficult to work across party lines."

Bayh has $13 million in his campaign account and, despite a determined effort by the GOP to mount a serious challenge to his reelection prospects, was leading in early polls. His decision could be taken by other Democrats as one more piece of evidence that the energy so far this year is on the right.

"The people with fire in the belly are conservatives, Republicans and tea partiers," said John Feehery, a Republican strategist who served as a spokesman for former Republican House speaker J. Dennis Hastert (Ill.). "The Democrats don't have it right now. They had it in 2006, they had it in 2008, and they lost it."

Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute said the timing of Bayh's announcement could affect politicians in both parties, prodding more Democrats to consider retiring and more Republicans to take a chance on challenging an incumbent because the climate looks so favorable. "It's a self-fulfilling mechanism," he said.

Tom Mann of the Brookings Institution, arguing that Bayh "did no favor to his president and his party," said the senator's announcement could further damage Democrats' hopes of passing a major health-care bill. "It weakens the spine of Democrats at a time when they need to finish one job," he said. "Because falling short on that, it's hard to see how they stop the bleeding and gain some measure of stability, if not control, moving into the midterm elections."

A health-care test

Many Democrats blame Republicans for the partisan polarization in this Congress, citing in particular the GOP's near-unanimous opposition to the Democrats' health-care legislation. That presents Obama with his biggest near-term challenge.

The test will begin next week, at a televised, bipartisan health-care summit. Afterward, the president will have to decide whether to try to pass an altered bill with some Republican support or use a legislative procedure that could allow Democrats to pass a bill with just 51 votes.

White House officials said Tuesday that the president will continue to reach out to Republicans, with the health-care summit the next important moment. Communications director Dan Pfeiffer said that after the meeting, administration officials will gauge the possibility of bipartisan compromise. "The president is coming to the meeting with open mind and hopes Republicans do too," he said.

Mann and Ornstein said passing a bill, even without GOP support, is preferable to passing nothing, though they underscored that Obama will have to employ some delicate politics to pull it off. "Can you make that work by, first of all, continuing to appear genuine in your desire to reach out, and then not make it look like it's just a calculation so you can jam things through on a partisan basis?" Ornstein asked.

Whatever Obama decides will be potentially crucial for him, Baker said: "This is one of those geological fault lines in an administration in which you've got to stand on one side of the chasm or another."

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