WASHINGTON — Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana said Monday that he was fed up with Congress and wouldn't seek re-election this year, the latest in a series of retirements spurred by frustration with dysfunction in Congress.
"To put it in words I think most people 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," he said in Indianapolis.
The two-term Democratic senator, 54, offered reasons that are increasingly commonplace among those familiar with the nation's legislature: "There is much too much partisanship and not enough progress; too much narrow ideology and not enough practical problem-solving," he said. "Even at a time of enormous national challenge, the people's business is not getting done."
Bayh was comfortably ahead in recent polls; his Republican challengers, former Sen. Dan Coats and former Rep. John Hostettler, trailed by double digits. He won his previous Senate races handily: with 62 percent in 2004 and 64 percent in 1998.
His decision is a fresh blow to his party, which since the start of the year has been shaken by the surprise retirement announcements of veteran Sens. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota and Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, the decision of Vice President Joe Biden's son Beau not to seek the Delaware seat his father held for 36 years and Republican Scott Brown's win of the Massachusetts seat that the late Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy had held for 47 years. Democrats now control 59 of the 100 Senate seats.
Bayh's decision is a surprise, in part because he's been in politics his entire life. He was 6 years old when his father, Birch Bayh, won the first of his three Senate terms from Indiana.
Evan Bayh has been an elected official since he became Indiana's secretary of state in 1986, at age 30. Twice elected governor of Indiana before he went to the U.S. Senate, he was on the short list of possible vice-presidential nominees in 2004 and 2008, and was viewed as a potential White House contender.
Bayh is one of a shrinking group of eight to 10 Democratic centrists who've traditionally worked closely with like-minded Republicans, usually on spending and tax matters.
"In Bayh you're looking at a serious legislator, a senior legislator, a moderate Democrat whose most important mission was to get things done," Denver-based political consultant Floyd Ciruli said. "Instead, he sees a place where he can't accomplish anything."
That message could be bad news for incumbents of both parties this year, as polls show that voters share Bayh's contempt for Congress. Eighteen Democratic and 18 Republican Senate seats, as well as all 435 seats in the House of Representatives, are up for election in November.
Bayh cited two recent examples of his disenchantment with the Senate's ability to achieve goals that the nation needs. A recent bid to create a powerful, independent commission to forge solutions for the burgeoning national debt got 53 votes but failed because it didn't get the 60 needed under Senate rules to cut off debate. Seven Republicans who'd originally co-sponsored the plan voted against it after they came under heavy pressure from party activists.
"Bayh was somebody who tried to reach out to both sides, and found it a lot harder," said John Pitney, a professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College in California.
Last week's unraveling of a bipartisan jobs-creation bill also troubled Bayh. Leaders of both parties announced the package Thursday morning, only to see Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., scuttle most of it by the afternoon after objections from liberals and conservatives.
"All of this and much more has led me to believe that there are better ways to serve my fellow citizens, my beloved state and our nation than continued service in Congress," Bayh said.
Some Republicans dismissed Bayh's assertion that he's leaving because he's frustrated.
"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," GOP Chairman Michael Steele said.
MORE FROM McCLATCHY
For more McClatchy politics coverage visit Planet Washington