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Retiring senators: Why are so many calling it quits?

Twelve senators so far have opted not to run again, the second-highest number of retiring senators in 75 years. Among their frustrations: the Senate's increasingly partisan climate.

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Unlike the House, Senate rules give the minority powers to block legislation. Without bipartisan support – or 60 votes – legislation does not move in the Senate. Even with 60 votes for most of President Obama's first year, Democrats couldn't muster the unanimity within their own caucus to come to terms with the House over the president's No. 1 domestic priority: healthcare reform.

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Meanwhile, Senate Republicans have used the filibuster threat and the practice of anonymous "holds" on presidential nominations to grind Senate business to a near halt since Mr. Obama took office.

"The ability to work together across party lines has really taken a serious hit in the Senate – more than I've ever seen it before," says Norman Ornstein, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

Senators perceived by outside groups to be working across party lines face reprisals in the polls. Sens. Robert Bennett (R) of Utah and John McCain (R) of Arizona face strong opposition in their Republican primaries from conservatives, who challenge their bipartisan work.

"What that tells you is that any [Republican] that even ventures the idea of working with the other side, no matter how conservative they are, can end up in real trouble," he says.

Gregg and Bayh say they are disappointed that, in the current climate, even genuine bipartisan efforts – the gold standard of good legislation in the past – have little chance of success, in part because of pressure from outside groups.

On Jan. 26, the Senate voted down a proposed bipartisan commission to rein in soaring deficits and debt, 53 to 46. "The measure would have passed, but seven members who had endorsed the idea voted 'no' for short-term political reasons," Bayh said in his retirement speech.

Negotiators on both sides of the aisle were also stunned on Feb. 11 when Senate majority leader Harry Reid withdrew an $85 billion jobs bill developed with bipartisan support in the Finance Committee, in favor of a scaled-down $15 billion leadership plan.

"It's important not to engage in political mythology: Politics has always been a bare-knuckled sport, but it just seems institutionally in the Senate now the forces of gridlock are greater than ever before," said Bayh. "The extremes in both parties are the most dynamic elements, and they tend to hold members to rigid litmus tests and any deviation is punished."

What to a senator looks like a compromise, to a blogger or "tea party" activist looks like a capitulation, he adds. "What separates elected officials from editorial writers, pundits, bloggers is: At the end of the day, people expect us to get things done. This constant all-or-nothing situation constantly leads to nothing."

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