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.

AJ Mast/AP
Sen. Evan Bayh (D) of Indiana kissed his wife, Susan, while flanked by sons Nick (l.) and Beau (r.) at a press conference announcing he will not seek reelection after serving his second six-year term in the Senate. Sen. Bayh is one of 12 retiring senators this year.

"I do not love Congress."

Call it the shot heard round the Capitol. With a $13 million war chest and a lead in the polls, Sen. Evan Bayh (D) of Indiana appeared on track to reelection – until he decided that he'd had enough of what the Senate had become.

"I am not motivated by strident partisanship or ideology," he said at a Feb. 15 press conference.

Later, in a phone interview with the Monitor, Senator Bayh elaborated. "Our politics has almost become tribal, with the different political tribes bent on destroying their adversaries," he said. "It's a constant quest for political power that renders its effective use impossible once you've attained it."

To date, 12 senators have announced retirements – the second-highest number of Senate retirees in 75 years. The high-water mark was 13 departures in 1996.

Click to see photo gallery of retiring senators

As in years past, some departing senators, notably Christopher Dodd (D) of Connecticut and Jim Bunning (R) of Kentucky, faced long odds in their reelection bids. Had the numbers lined up differently – or had their respective party leaders been willing to invest resources to shore up their reelection bids – they could have fought for another six-year term.

But what's striking about this electoral cycle is what the unforced departures say about the changing character of the Senate. One by one, exiting senators referenced the frustrations of working in a body that has lost its tolerance for debate and become increasingly more like the House of Representatives.

"When I first arrived, the Senate was a place where fairly complex pieces of legislation were brought to the floor and we spent weeks on it," said three-term Sen. Judd Gregg (R) of New Hampshire, another retiree.

"The Senate is losing its character and purpose: to be the place of debate and amendment on complicated issues," Senator Gregg added in an interview. "It's moving closer to the House, where [the majority] doesn't allow any amendments that are significant."

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.

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."

In his departing words on the Senate floor, Sen. Paul Kirk (D) of Massachusetts, appointed to the seat held by Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) until a successor could be elected, said the Senate needs its own form of "climate change." "Bipartisan comity and collaboration must replace the polarization that threatens to poison the atmosphere and impede the work of this body," he said.

With the swearing in of Sen. Scott Brown (R) of Massachusetts on Feb. 4, the Democratic caucus, including two independents, fell to 59 – one short of the head count needed to block a filibuster.

Still, the climate in today's Senate is far from the poisonous atmosphere in the run-up to the Civil War, including the caning of Sen. Charles Sumner in 1856. Harsh debates over civil rights and the Vietnam War in the 1960s and early '70s also set high-water marks for animosity and personal rancor. In a chilling speech in 1970, during the debate to end US military operations in Vietnam, Sen. George McGovern (D) of South Dakota said: "Every senator in this chamber is partly responsible for sending 50,000 young Americans to an early grave. This chamber reeks of blood."

"It was chilling to hear that," says former Senate parliamentarian Robert Dove. "I don't think anything today compares to the poisonous atmosphere then over civil rights and the Vietnam War."

By contrast, departing senators often note that their frustrations are not personal nor directed at colleagues.

"This decision does not relate to any dissatisfaction I have about serving in the Senate," Sen. Byron Dorgan (D) of North Dakota said in a Jan. 5 statement. "Yes, I wish there was less rancor and more bipartisanship in the US Senate these days. But still, it is a great privilege to serve, and I have the utmost respect for all of the men and women with whom I serve."


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