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Barney Frank: Partisanship is out of control in Congress

AMHERST, Mass. — U.S. Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts said Tuesday that Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh is right that partisan politics on Capitol Hill are getting out of control, but Frank said his fellow Democrat could do more to change that by staying in Congress than by stepping out of politics.

"I don't understand how you make things better from the outside. I share the frustration, but I would have hoped he would have stayed around and voted to change the filibuster rule," Frank said Tuesday, shortly before appearing at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst to sign copies of his biography with author Stuart Weisberg.

Bayh said Monday that he plans to retire when his term runs out.

Frank, who is seeking his 16th term in the U.S. House of Representatives, addressed about 125 people at UMass with recollections ranging from his days as a Boston mayoral aide to his current spot as chairman of the House Financial Services Committee.

But partisanship was a theme to which he returned again and again, saying he believes a clear shift began under Republican Newt Gingrich's tenure as House speaker in the second half of the 1990s.

Before that, he said, Democrats and Republicans could disagree but remain cordial and work toward compromise. Now, though, the pressure to please the party's base to win primary elections has spawned a Congress in which the sides are "very ideologically differentiated," he said.

He believes that's also evident in the electorate, in which the most ardent liberals and conservatives are getting their news from such different sources that they often seem to be discussing completely different topics.

"People are almost in a parallel universe. They are not getting a common set of facts and most of the people they talk to are those who agree with them," Frank said.

Frank supports changing the rules on filibusters, which the minority party — in this case, Republicans — often use to debate bills for so long that an actual vote is prevented.

In the Senate, a filibuster can be ended only with three-fifths approval, or 60 votes. Any Democratic effort to change that would require a change to the Senate rule, which in itself takes a two-thirds majority, or 67 votes.

Such a change seemed to slip further from Democrats when Massachusetts Republican Scott Brown won a surprise victory to capture the late Democratic U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy's seat.

Frank said he has written to Brown but has not met him; nor has he had the time to finish reading the biography he was signing Tuesday, "Barney Frank: The Story of America's Only Left-Handed, Gay, Jewish Congressman."

Brett Berchin, 37, of Springfield, attended the event carrying a sign, "Barney Frank: Poster Boy for Term Limits." He and a few other people criticized Frank, though the audience was largely friendly toward Frank.

"This is not a government that's supposed to exalt people. Allowing a man to serve 20, 30, 40 years goes against what the fabric of this country is about," Berchin said.

Some attended to hear more about Frank's experiences as head of the House Financial Services Committee during the economic meltdown, while others said they had no idea what to expect.

"He's had a lot of ups and downs in his career, but he's always fascinating," said Janice Brickley, 56, of Amherst.