WASHINGTON — Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., on Monday unexpectedly announced he would not run for re-election this year, blasting the Senate for its recent failure to address major issues like reducing unemployment and the federal deficit.
"After all these years, my passion for service to my fellow citizens is undiminished, but my desire to do so in Congress has waned," Bayh said.
"I love helping our citizens make the most of their lives," Bayh said, "but I do not love Congress."
It is the latest in a series of blows to Democrats' efforts to cut potential Senate losses in November's midterm election. His retirement brings to around eight the number of seriously contested seats now held by Democrats in an election year that was already expected to whittle the party's 59-vote majority in the Senate.
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It also comes in the wake of major disappointments in key states where favored candidates decided not to run, and the upset victory of a Republican last month in the race for the Massachusetts Senate seat.
Bayh also gave voice to a frustration that crosses party lines over the poisonous political environment surrounding Capitol Hill and the gridlock that is allowing big national problems to worsen.
"It's a pervasive feeling that has taken hold," said former Indiana Rep. Lee Hamilton, a Democratic associate of Bayh's. "The low ratings and criticism of Congress, the lack of progress on policy, the excessive partisanship that has gripped the place, has made everyone much more aware of the disadvantage of remaining in office."
Bayh's retirement — traditionally an occasion for gracious bipartisan praise of a politician's career — was greeted with a partisan broadside from the head of the Republican National Committee.
"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 RNC chairman Michael Steele.
Bayh, first elected to the Senate in 1998, served as Indiana governor from 1988 to 1996. He is son of former Sen. Birch Bayh, D-Ind.
He is a moderate Democrat at a time when the political center is a shrinking piece of real estate. That added to his frustrations in the Senate — and contributed to his failure to realize his higher political ambitions.
Bayh briefly tried to win his party's 2008 presidential nomination. He was twice a contender to be the vice-presidential nominee — in 2004 when John Kerry ran for president, and in 2008 when Barack Obama was the nominee.
In the Senate, he was often at odds with his party leaders on fiscal issues. In the health care debate, he was among the deficit-conscious moderates whose support was in question. He became more supportive after Democratic leaders agreed to changes in the bill that helped medical device manufacturers, which are very important in Indiana.
Bayh voiced particular frustration at two recent incidents of Senate inaction.
When a bipartisan group recently gave party leaders a $85 billion job-creation bill, it came in for criticism from both the left and the right and was dramatically scaled back.
When the Senate voted on a Bayh-backed bill to create a commission to reduce the federal deficit, it was voted down — thanks, in part, to the defection of seven Republicans who had once sponsored the idea.
"Even at a time of enormous challenge, the peoples' business is not being done," Bayh said Monday, citing those two issues. "Examples of this are legion."