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Michael Steele and the lack of Bayh-partisanship

It's understandable that Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele would be incredulous at Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh's announcement that he has decided not to run for re-election because of the lack of bipartisanship in Congress.

Sure, Mr. Steele's analysis of the situation, that Senator Bayh's retirement is another sign that Democrats are "running for the hills," seems a little unlikely, given that the most recent poll showed Senator Bayh up 20 points against his prospective Republican opponent and that the incumbent Democrat has $13 million in his campaign war chest. But Senator Bayh's explanation that recent events had convinced him that "there is too much partisanship and not enough progress -- too much narrow ideology and not enough practical problem solving" made entirely too much sense for it possibly to be true. After all, such a decision would be principled, maybe even noble -- and in Washington these days, that sounds downright inconceivable.

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The two issues Senator Bayh mentioned as straws that broke the camel's back were the failure of a bipartisan commission to force Congress to consider fixes to the federal government's long-term budget problems and the collapse over the weekend of a compromise jobs bill that had been negotiated by Republican and Democratic senators. Both are excellent examples of politics taking precedence over what's best for the country.

The fiscal commission was supposed to be a bipartisan panel that would have taken a comprehensive look at ballooning budgets for Social Security, Medicare and other federal programs and proposed cuts, tax increases, benefits changes and anything else necessary to put the nation on a sustainable path. The idea was that Congress would be forced to vote up or down on the commission's recommendations, much in the same way Congress now handles military base relocation and closure decisions, in hopes that doing so would force everyone to look at the big picture.

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With the news that the nation is expected to add trillions in debt over the next decade, it was an idea whose time had come. But it failed to get the 60 votes necessary to pass in the Senate; 37 of the chamber's 59 Democrats voted for it, but just 16 Republicans did. Seven Republicans who had initially co-sponsored it and at least one who had publicly favored it -- Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky -- voted against it, dropping their support shortly after President Barack Obama endorsed the idea.

The jobs bill was an $85 billion compromise measure worked out by Sens. Max Baucus and Charles Grassley, Democrat of Montana and Republican of Iowa, respectively. It included various business tax breaks and incentives for hiring, public works projects, aid to states and more money for unemployment benefits. A few hours after it was announced, though, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid yanked it back in favor of a stripped-down, $15 billion plan that would be too small to do much good.

The reason for Senator Reid's action is hotly debated in Washington. He says he was disturbed that Republican leaders weren't willing to commit to the $85 billion bill and worried that the GOP would later tar Democrats for supporting a proposal they had helped craft. Republicans think Senator Reid is manipulating the process in an effort to get them to vote against politically popular legislation during an election year. In either case, political considerations are clearly getting in the way of legislation targeting the issue most important to American voters.

In that context, it would be nice if Senator Bayh's announcement would serve as a wake-up call to Washington to mend its ways, but it looks unlikely. After all, Mercutio's "a plague on both your houses" didn't exactly result in peace and harmony in fair Verona either. Quite the contrary, everyone seems to be drawing exactly the wrong lessons from the decision. Democrats, seeing yet another incumbent deciding against a re-election bid, are only going to grow more timid and politically calculating. Republicans are going to conclude that their obstructionism works -- after all, it just turned Indiana from "leans Democrat" to "leans Republican" in the handicapping of November's election. Whether Senator Bayh's decision was noble or cowardly or something in between, it's almost certain to make matters worse.

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