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Finding little middle ground to stand on, U.S. senator calls it quits

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54-year-old Indiana Democratic Senator Evan Bayh’s parting shot: ‘I do not love Congress’

kyakabuski@globeandmail.com

Coming from any ordinary American, the phrase ‘I do not love Congress’ might simply be a reflection of the contempt most of the country currently feels towards the bickerers on Capitol Hill.

Coming from Evan Bayh, the 54-year-old Indiana Democratic Senator who has spent almost his entire life as a major elected office holder or the son of one, it is a parting shot at a Congress now so coarsely partisan it no longer feels like home to a solid centrist.

Mr. Bayh stunned Hoosiers by telling them yesterday the man they had made the country’s youngest governor in 1988, and their junior U.S. senator for the past dozen years, will not seek re-election in this fall’s congressional midterms.

The news reverberated throughout the capital yesterday, upsetting the Presidents Day holiday for Democrats and Republicans alike, and further complicating President Barack Obama’s hopes of building the bipartisan coalitions in the Senate that he needs to advance his legislative agenda on health-care reform, climate change and deficit reduction.

Mr. Bayh, who made Mr. Obama’s short list of potential vice-presidential running mates in 2008, has been openly critical of the administration and the Democratic leadership in Congress, recently telling The Wall Street Journal they had “overreached rather than looking for consensus with moderates and independents.”

“He was one of only a handful [of Democratic senators] who would have had enough street cred to reach out to moderate Republicans to craft a filibuster-proof bill,” opined James McCann, a political science professor at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind.

One recent attempt involved a proposal to create a bipartisan commission to tackle the federal deficit – projected to be a record $1.6-trillion (U.S.) this year. A fiscal conservative who cut taxes and generated huge budget surpluses when he was governor, Mr. Bayh is a strident deficit hawk. He helped broker a deal with some Republican senators to back the commission idea. In the end, six of them backed out, effectively killing the idea, which could not rally the 60 Senate votes needed to override a Republican filibuster.

In Indianapolis yesterday, Mr. Bayh slammed the senators “who had endorsed the idea [but] instead voted ‘no’ for short-term political reasons.” The episode, he said, fed his “growing conviction that Congress is not operating as it should. There is too much partisanship and not enough progress – too much narrow ideology and not enough practical problem-solving.”

Republicans, including Arizona Senator John McCain, bailed on the proposal for a debt commission because they feared it would provide political cover to Democrats seeking tax increases to balance the budget. That could have proved costly to the 73-year-old Mr. McCain, who is seeking his fifth six-year Senate term.

That is if his own party will have him. Right-wing challenger and popular Arizona radio host J.D. Hayworth officially declared his candidacy for the nomination yesterday, charging: “There are two John McCains. One who campaigns like a conservative and one who legislates like a liberal.”

The primary race, in which Mr. McCain is still largely favoured, reflects the GOP’s increasing shift to the right in the face of pressure from the Tea Party movement and big-government angst of independent voters. Mr. McCain is even trying to establish his credibility with the Tea Party by bringing in his 2008 running mate, Sarah Palin, to campaign with him.

Had he decided to stay on, Mr. Bayh likely faced a much tougher re-election battle than the 2004 race that he won with 62 per cent of the vote. Early polls still had him leading his declared rivals for the Republican nomination comfortably, but Indiana’s economy has been one of the most battered by the recession and electors are generally in an anti-incumbent mood. Now, with Mr. Bayh out of the picture, Indiana is even more likely to reassume its default position and vote Republican.

That raises once more the odds that Democrats will sustain quite humbling losses in November when all 435 seats in the House of Representatives are up for election, as well as a third of those in the 100-seat Senate, possibly robbing Mr. Obama’s party of its majority in Congress.

Mr. Bayh left potential Democratic successors scrambling to weigh their chances, and come up with the requisite 500 signatures from each of the state’s nine congressional districts, in the face of Friday’s deadline for candidates in the Indiana primaries to file their registration papers.

But the timing of Mr. Bayh’s announcement likely had to do more with destabilizing the Republicans than his own party. Mike Pence, a 50-year-old Indiana congressman and one of his party’s rising stars in Washington, had stayed out of the GOP primary since beating Mr. Bayh in a general election was no foregone conclusion.

“Part of Bayh waiting this long might have been him trying to constrain the list of [primary] candidates on the Republican side,” Prof. McCann said. “In an open seat, you have to think Mike Pence would be a formidable candidate.”

With the departure of Mr. Bayh, at least eight Senate seats currently held by Democrats seriously risk going Republican in November. The stalemate in Congress may only get worse. With the Tea Party increasingly calling the shots, what are the odds that any new GOP senators will be in a compromising mood?

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