GOP divisions in the Missouri Senate bedevil legislative session

Political ambitions may make factionalism worse as members vie for attention in 2022

By: - May 17, 2021 5:55 am

Senate President Pro Tem Dave Schatz, left, listens to an answer from Senate Majority Leader Caleb Rowden (Rudi Keller/Missouri Independent).

When the Missouri Senate gathered early Friday morning, with just under 18 hours before the state Constitution requires lawmakers to conclude their session, Sen. Paul Wieland asked a fellow lawmaker a question.

“How long do you think me and you are going to have to talk, in these next 18 hours?” Wieland, R-Imperial, asked Sen. Bill Eigel, R-Weldon Spring. 

“I don’t have the answer to that question,” Eigel replied with a laugh.

The immediate issue was whether a bill extending medical provider taxes that finance Medicaid would include anti-abortion provisions sponsored by Wieland. The larger issue, raised by Wieland and looming over every major fight of the 2021 legislative session, was the fracturing of the 24 member Senate Republican caucus.

Every member of the Republican caucus campaigned as an abortion opponent, Wieland said. His amendment barring Medicaid funds from purchasing some contraceptive devices and medications, he argued, was a chance to prove that commitment.

Instead, he said the Senate leadership was prepared to force a vote without his provisions.

“I feel like I’m in the minority,” Wieland said. “I’m supposed to have 24 friends. And I feel like I’m out there swimming all by myself.”

And that was the story of the session in the Senate. At times, it seemed, there were not two but three political parties — and whatever two of them agreed on is what was passed.

“You know, I mean, clearly there’s 10 Democrats and there’s, on their best day, there’s eight conservatives. And there’s a bunch of us in the middle,” Senate Majority Leader Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, said in an interview.

To be sure, the 2021 legislative session saw major pieces of the GOP agenda find their way to the governor’s desk. Many of those — public money to help offset the cost of private school tuition, or a push to block cities from cutting police budgets — were key priorities of the Senate’s conservative caucus. 

But for every significant bill where the Senate GOP remained united, there was another where they splintered. 

Senate Republicans stayed together on Thursday against Democrats on a 22-10 vote to pass a bill with sweeping provisions to nullify federal gun laws in Missouri. But the party fractured in votes on a 12.5-cent gas tax increase and a prescription drug monitoring program.

The fuel tax, a priority of Senate President Pro Tem Dave Schatz,  passed 21-13 on March 11, with 12 Republicans and 1 Democrat opposed. The drug monitoring program passed 20-12 on April 6 with all 12 “no” votes coming from Republicans.

The climactic moment of schism came just before 4 a.m. Friday, when the Senate voted on a motion from Sen. Bob Onder, R-Lake St. Louis, to insist on Wieland’s amendment in the provider tax extension. 

Provider taxes produced $2.3 billion of Medicaid’s $10.8 budget in fiscal 2020. If a renewal bill failed for the first time in 30 years, lawmakers would have to vote in special session to extend them or find replacement money after Sept. 30.

The Senate approved Onder’s motion on the 16-14 vote, with Democrats joined by Rowden, Assistant Majority Leader Bill White and the two top Republicans on the Senate Appropriations Committee, Chairman Dan Hegeman and Vice Chairman Lincoln Hough.

The Senate soon went into recess. 

When members returned in the daylight of Friday, Democrats filibustered, the House wouldn’t talk and the chamber adjourned with nothing else accomplished, four hours before the constitutional deadline.

At a post-session news conference, Rowden tried his best to paint the defeat of the provider tax bill as a matter of little long-term importance.

“The Senate is a unique place, with 34 very, very unique personalities,” Rowden said. “I think any notion that because we didn’t do something that doesn’t have to be done till September 30 is somehow a failure, I think, is a misclassification. I think it’s a very short sighted view of things.”

The facts of factions

Terry Smith, professor of political science at Columbia College.

The bigger a legislative majority, political scientist Terry Smith of Columbia College said, the more likely it is to break into factions that fight each other with more intensity than the ostensible opposition. 

That, he said, is the reality right now in the Missouri Senate.

Democrats hold fewer than one-third of the 34 seats, which means Republicans can do anything they can bring to a vote and stay united behind.

There are certainly also splits among Republicans in the House, but to a lesser extent since the chambers’s rules allow leadership to exert far more control over its members. When the House passed the fuel tax hike, for example, or on school-choice bills, they depended on Democrats for passage.

“They talk to us about taxes and charter schools,” state Rep. Raychel Proudie, D-Ferguson said. “Otherwise, we can kick rocks.”

Tensions between the House and Senate, or between the legislative and executive branches, can also short circuit a session’s momentum.

But it’s in the Senate where intra-party tension often has the biggest impact.

Since they gained dominant control of the Senate, reconciling factions has been a task for Republicans. The GOP choice for the Senate’s top post, president pro tem, came down to a coin toss when the caucus split evenly after what one lawmaker called “a battle for the soul of the Senate.”

In 2012, a “Gang of Nine” conservative senators almost forced a special session over the budget as they demanded changes. They were led by Sen. Jason Crowell, R-Cape Girardeau,  who said his group was concerned about conservative principles, which he said were being abandoned by moderates more interested in cozy relationships with lobbyists and Democrats.

“They are just a bunch of RINOs,” he said, an acronym for GOP moderates that means Republican in Name Only. 

Despite the history of acrimony in the Senate, numerous longtime lobbyists and former lawmakers interviewed by The Independent said the Senate is as dysfunctional as they’ve ever seen it.

“I see the problem as the leadership, which has not been consistent,” said one lobbyist who asked to speak anonymously for fear of retribution.

This session’s main splinter group is the Conservative Caucus, which started at the end of 2019 with six members. They began with tactics that included filibustering bills and being very public with their positions.

“We used to basically be very upfront, have our own press conferences, do that kind of thing,” said Sen. Eric Burlison, Battlefield. “And we found that tended to bring unnecessary pushback.”

Instead, the caucus meets regularly to discuss issues and which lawmakers will take a lead on specific issues, he said.

And after pushing into politics in 2020 to help win hard fought primaries for new caucus members Mike Moon and Rick Brattin, the next step may be backing primary challengers to incumbent Senators. 

Alignment of interests in the outcome are the key to success for a faction that is working with the minority party. And in much the way that this year’s divisions among Republicans provided opportunities for Democrats, divisions among Democrats gave Republicans an outsized voice in deciding Senate leadership in 1981.

Democrats outnumbered Republicans 23-11 that year, but rural Democrats joined with Republicans to oppose liberal Sen. Phil Snowden of Kansas City in the race for president pro tem.

Now that Republicans control rural districts as the bedrock of their majority, the parties are more ideologically homogeneous. That actually makes intra-party fights more likely and more intense, Smith said.

“Be careful what you wish for in terms of having a dominant majority,” Smith said, “because sometimes the  worst fights and the ones that are the silliest are the ones you have with people in your own party if you are not going to lose the vote.”

Aggravating circumstances

Senate President Pro-Tem Dave Schatz, R-Sullivan (photo courtesy of Missouri Senate Communications).

The splits in this year’s session were often ideological. In the coming special sessions, and in 2022, personal political goals will be another factor. 

The coming retirement of U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt means Republicans in Missouri will lose their last major officeholder who first won a statewide election during the Ronald Reagan presidency of the 1980s. 

At that time Republicans had to appeal to Democrats or lose office — a Republican sweep in 1988 became a Democratic sweep in 1992. Now, Smith said, nomination in a Republican primary means almost certain election statewide and in most Congressional districts.

That allows room for candidates who appeal to their party’s base, rather than a broad electorate, to gain office.

“They would have to screw up in a huge way or there be some sort of major national realignment, a result of collapse in what is happening to the Republican Party nationally,” he said.

Of the state’s six Republican members of Congress, four are making moves that could put them in a crowded primary to replace Blunt. Each of those Congressional districts includes several Republican state senators, many who are term limited or can run without losing their current seats.

Some Senators, like Onder, have run for Congress before. Burlison, who lives in the 7th Congressional District, said he “can’t help but take a look” if U.S. Rep. Billy Long runs for Senate.

Schatz is considering a run for Blunt’s seat from his post as president pro tem.

The ambitions of members will play out during the 2022 session, said Rowden, who hasn’t ruled out a bid for Congress himself but said “he’s going to make darn sure it’s right for my family.” 

It will be impossible to keep those ambitions out of the Senate, he said. 

“For the most part, next year could get worse, because then we’re going to know who’s in and who’s out of that top race, and then all the other ones,” he said. “So, I am not saying it is going to get worse, but with everything accounted for, this year I don’t think has been all that bad.”

Schatz said his goal throughout the year was to focus on accomplishment and obtaining a majority that could pass major legislation.

“You always have some of those outliers that have those very conservative or very liberal ideas, and they hold very strongly to them,” Schatz said. “And then it makes it a very challenging place.”

The Conservative Caucus is being quieter, and also has its eyes on the 2022 elections. Not to choose a member to promote to federal office, but to win primaries in districts where sitting members lack the ideological purity they feel they bring to the chamber.

White, who drew the job of trying one last time to move the provider taxes in the early Friday hours and avoid a special session, said he thinks his actions will be approved by his southwest Missouri voters if he has a primary.

“I don’t know that we’ve ever had a scenario where people actively sitting in the Senate have been challenged by other active people sitting in the Senate,” White said. So I would not comment on that. I don’t think I’ve heard of a scenario like that.”

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Rudi Keller
Rudi Keller

Rudi Keller covers the state budget and the legislature. A graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, he spent 22 of his 32 years in journalism covering Missouri government and politics for the Columbia Daily Tribune, where he won awards for spot news and investigative reporting.