WASHINGTON — The often dysfunctional 111th Congress got a loud wakeup call this week from retiring Sen. Evan Bayh, setting off alarms that moderates and party leaders hope will help them start to make long-sought progress on debt reduction, job creation and even health care.
"It's the kind of announcement that will cause some soul-searching" on Capitol Hill, said Bruce Reed, the head of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. "It speaks to a frustration that a number of members in both parties have but rarely say in such dramatic fashion."
Bayh, a two-term Democrat from Indiana, said Monday that he wouldn't seek re-election this fall, despite double-digit leads over his Republican rivals, because he was fed up with Congress. He kept firing away at Congress on Tuesday, telling ABC News that it suffers from "brain-dead partisanship'' and "tactical maneuvering for short-term advantage."
The Senate consistently has missed self-imposed goals for acting on major legislation, including ambitious proposals on health care, job creation, financial regulation and debt reduction.
"This has been a very challenging political environment for people who want to solve problems," said Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.
Polls show that voters blame both parties for inertia in Congress. A Pew Research Center poll Feb. 3 to 9 found that only 29 percent thought Republicans had done a good job of offering solutions to the country's problems over the past year. Forty percent gave Democrats that accolade.
Lawmakers must do a better job of explaining their views on health care — and of the complexities of the legislative process — to win back public support, experts said.
"You almost never get a big piece of legislation like this through in just one session of Congress," said Tripp Baird, who was a top aide to former Senate Republican leader Trent Lott of Mississippi.
Bayh's comments are a reminder that to get things done, leaders have to work toward the middle, Baird said: "Just like Lott sometimes threw the right overboard, Reid has to do the same with the left."
The outlook on select issues:
Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., who's unhappy with the Obama administration's long-range budget plans, is confident that a powerful debt reduction commission will be created this year "to get us back on track."
Late Tuesday, the White House announced that President Barack Obama on Thursday will appoint by executive order a bipartisan commission to advise how to rein in the national debt. Congress and the president would have to approve any final decisions, however.
Obama will host a bipartisan health care summit Feb. 25, hoping to jump-start the stalled debate. While Republican leaders in the House of Representatives have been skeptical that much will get done, Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said last week that he wanted to consult with the White House "to maximize the effectiveness of the meeting." Bayh's blast may underscore that both parties need such a result.
The immediate impact of Bayh's decision could be apparent next week, when the Senate is expected to vote on a $15 billion jobs package. It was originally $85 billion, and the Senate Finance Committee's top Republican and Democrat supported it.
Reid pared it back, however, after hearing objections from some Senate liberals about tax breaks for business.
Bayh slammed Democrats for abandoning the bipartisan approach, and one of the Senate's most vulnerable incumbents, Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., said she hoped that Democratic leaders would reconsider their decision on the jobs bill.
"Most Americans don't honestly believe that a single political party has all the good ideas," she said. "We're not going to accomplish anything until we start governing from the center."
Will that happen?
"It's possible," the DLC's Reed said. "Bayh's comments could have a sobering effect."
(David Goldstein contributed to this story.)
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