The straw that broke Evan Bayh's tenure
The last time Sen. Evan Bayh was the subject of this column was in October, when he organized a letter from 10 moderate Democrats informing Majority Leader Harry Reid that they would oppose any increase in the statutory debt ceiling unless it was accompanied by a serious move to rein in the national debt.
Specifically, the Indiana Democrat and his colleagues asked for a vote on the proposal to create a bipartisan commission to examine all aspects of spending and taxation and recommend deficit-cutting steps for a guaranteed vote by the House and Senate by the end of this year.
The Bayh threat worked. President Obama, who had been silent on the subject, belatedly gave the action-forcing commission his blessing, and Reid called it up for a Senate vote. But despite winning a 53-to-46 majority, it fell short of the 60-vote margin needed to avoid a filibuster.
This was the final straw that pushed Bayh over the edge to announcing Monday his retirement from the Senate -- a move that shocked fellow Hoosiers and Democrats. Only 54, with $13 million in his campaign account, comfortably ahead in a state where he has won every time he's been on the ballot, Bayh told me that the "sorry episode" of the commission vote, as he called it, was what convinced him it was time to quit.
Both parties were to blame, he said. Twenty-three Republicans (and one independent) voted no, seven of them people who had previously co-sponsored the commission bill. So did 22 Democrats, many of them committee chairmen looking out for their own prerogatives.
I cannot fault Bayh for leaving, nor can I disagree with his statement that "short-term political advantage" trumped the national interest in this case and in many others in this sorry excuse for a Congress.
He is not alone in turning his back on the Senate. Eleven incumbents have announced their retirements -- an unusually large crop. Three other retirees -- Republicans Christopher "Kit" Bond of Missouri, Judd Gregg of New Hampshire and George Voinovich of Ohio -- are, like Bayh, former governors of their states. A fifth retiree, Sam Brownback of Kansas, is leaving to run for governor.
The former governors have formed an informal caucus of their own within the Senate, inviting former mayors and state attorneys general to join them. What they have in common is the discipline of coming from jobs where they are judged by their results rather than their words. And most of them have learned to work comfortably and cooperatively with colleagues from other parties, as state or local officials regularly do when dealing with the federal bureaucracy.
Bayh told me that one of the senators he will miss most is Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the No. 3 man in the Senate GOP hierarchy and another former governor. Alexander's view of politics is strikingly similar -- and far removed from those in both parties who, as Bayh put it, elevate ideology and partisanship over practical accomplishment.
Alexander was the only member of the Republican leadership to vote for the commission bill that Bayh wanted. In the past few weeks, Alexander has assembled a bipartisan group of 10 senators who are co-sponsoring a bill to update and improve clean-air legislation. He is also teaming with Democratic Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia on a bill to facilitate construction of nuclear plants.
The Senate has become a source of frustration for those within its ranks as well as for those who simply watch it and wait impatiently for it to act. The coming exodus of former governors will hurt its already weak productivity. But two sitting governors, Florida's Charlie Crist and North Dakota's John Hoeven, and one former governor, Delaware's Mike Castle, are in the running this year, and there are several attorneys general aiming for the Senate.
Obama continues to do his part, convening a bipartisan summit on health care next week and creating by executive order a bipartisan commission on deficit reduction, fulfilling Bayh's hope as much as he can.
The opportunity for rescuing Congress from gridlock is still there, but the odds against it are growing.