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Bayh warns pledges of independence could ring hollow

From NBC's Ken Strickland
Departing Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., has some advice for voters listening to candidates on the campaign trail who tout their independence, vowing to vote against the party if they don't agree with it.

Don't hold your breath.

"When you get here, the pressure by the two caucuses to kind of go along with 'the team' is pretty constant," he said during an “exit interview” with NBC News. "And it's gotten more so over the years."

Bayh feels that pressure plenty. He placed second on a list of Democrats who most often voted against their party during this Congress, according to a Washington Post database. (Only Nebraska’s Ben Nelson voted with Republicans more.)

"Any deviancy from party orthodoxy is viewed as an act of betrayal or a lack of moral fiber," Bayh complained.

(Independence from one’s political party is all relative, of course, and subject to evolution. In Bayh’s first two years in the Senate, he joined with party leaders over 90 percent of the time.)

While moderates like Bayh are the key to securing votes to pass legislation and are thus often able to extract concessions that benefit their state or cause, Bayh says the practice comes at a personal cost.

He recounted the moments he's had to address his entire Democratic conference with a viewpoint most of them did not support. "It's hard on a inter-personal basis," he said. "I suspect that most of the time they don't really care what you think, but if they need your vote then they've got to give you something."

Bayh shocked his party when he announced his retirement in February. Speaking in his home state at the time, he said, "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."

Even with his history of - sometimes - bucking the party, Bayh told NBC News that he regrets he wasn't more insistent -- especially on issues that promote deficit reduction. Bayh suggested that Congress needs more forceful, animated moderates: Think the public persona of New York’s Chuck Schumer, with the voting record of Maine’s Susan Collins.

"It may be an oxymoron, the notion of passionate moderates, but that's really what we need," Bayh said.

"The people who are more independent, more moderate, who say 'enough of these extremes, we're going to take the country back, and vote with the major party that seems to be more willing to compromise and to do the right thing.'"