Sen. Mike Cierpiot, R-Lee’s Summit, speaks on the Senate floor on Feb. 10, 2021 (screenshot courtesy of Senate Communications).
When the Missouri Senate recognizes “special guests,” it is normally a pleasant diversion, announcing visits from school groups, constituents or perhaps family.
Not on Thursday.
Sen. Mike Cierpiot read prepared remarks about former Sen. Jim Lembke, a political consultant working to recruit candidates for open seats to enlarge the conservative caucus. Cierpiot called him the “puppet master” of the conservative caucus filibuster over congressional redistricting.
Cierpiot’s words so enraged Sen. Bill Eigel that when the Senate broke for lunch a half-hour later, the two had to be physically separated. Eigel, R-Weldon Spring, encountered Cierpiot, R-Lee’s Summit, in Senate President Pro Tem Dave Schatz’s office, where members often are able to get a buffet-style meal in close proximity to the chamber.
The “heated, passionate yelling” described by one witness was enough to attract the attention of Senate security. Schatz stepped in between the two and they exchanged only words.
“This place makes people excited, sometimes they have different opinions and no, I don’t think it was anything particularly out of ordinary,” Cierpiot said. “So we just traded some thoughts, and kind of ended it.”
By Friday afternoon, Eigel had lowered his voice but his anger remained. The confrontation, he said, is nothing extraordinary.
“I think that we’ve seen, several times, tensions run high in that building and that’s kind of just how the sausage is made,” he said.
This was only the latest, and perhaps the loudest, flare up between a group of Republicans aligned with the conservative caucus and another aligned with Senate leadership — a division that has dominated the chamber for the last year and made it nearly impossible for much of anything to get done.
More than a month after convening the 2022 legislative session, the Senate has yet to debate any bills besides redistricting, and has been mired in the conservative caucus filibuster for a week, with attacks during floor debate often veering away from policy and becoming deeply personal.
Thursday’s flash of anger between senators is the most recent evidence that the Senate is no closer to resolving its impasse on redistricting. After a rare Friday session, where nothing was resolved, the Senate will meet again Saturday, something the body has not done in more than 25 years.
Sen. Holly Thompson Rehder, R-Sikeston, said it was time for the Senate to get serious about its business.
“I hope we can stop with the speeches and all the stuff to get the headlines…,” she said. “I just hope we can be honest in our work in this body and something we can be proud of when we talk to our children about our time in this chamber, and our grandchildren, years from now.”
Shifting population within the state means the current eight districts are out of balance in population and must be equalized. Republicans hold six of the eight seats and Democrats represent seats that include Kansas City and St. Louis.
The conservative caucus is demanding the Senate replace a plan already approved in the Missouri House with one designed to give the GOP the 5th District seat of Kansas City Rep. Emanuel Cleaver.
Despite losing 8-24 on one plan on Monday night, caucus members have refused to allow the Senate to take any other votes.
The redistricting bill is the only bill the Senate has debated in the five weeks since the session started. While the conservative caucus filibuster has been going all week, the bill only made it to the floor once – on Monday – with other days consumed with delaying debates on minor motions.
It is the only bill the Senate will debate, Schatz said Friday, until it is brought to a vote.
“We are going to find a solution and stay on it until we get a solution,” Schatz said.
Long-time observers are hard-pressed to name a time when factionalism in the majority party was as bitter as the current divide among Senate Republicans.
The things said in anger over the past year are a catalog of insults that linger in the memory.
During the veto session in September, there were accusations from Sen. Bob Onder that leaders were “subverting the democratic process.” In response, Majority Leader Caleb Rowden said the conservative caucus was a “clown show” that was forcing pointless votes to “appease children.”
In both the regular session last year and a special session in late June, accusations of betrayal resulted in demands that Rowden and Schatz resign for “actively working with Democrats” to thwart the conservative caucus demands.
Cierpiot’s floor speech Thursday continued the streak of slashing attacks, as did Eigel’s response. Cierpiot painted a portrait of Lembke as a self-serving opportunist. Lembke was in the Senate from 2009 to 2013 and has worked on the staff of other Republican senators from 2015 to 2019 and again in 2021. He is currently chairman of The 100 PAC, founded last year to push the Senate to the right.
“I believe he still holds the single season record for lobbyists gifts for a month, quarter and year,” Cierpiot said of Lembke’s time in the Senate.
Lembke left his job as a Senate staff employee because of an impending ban on lobbyist gifts, Cierpiot alleged.
“He’s now leading the charge as puppet master for the 7-1 congressional district,” Cierpiot said.
In response, Lembke acknowledged that he has advised the conservative caucus that pushing for a map that elects more Republicans has a good political payback with GOP voters.
“I was very disappointed that a sitting senator would cast disparaging remarks about a former senator on the Senate floor and it really speaks to the lack of decorum that the Senate has fallen into,” Lembke said. “Although, I do get a kick of living rent free in some people’s heads.”
The insults being flung regularly are a mark of frustration with conservative caucus stubbornness, Cierpiot said in an interview Friday.
“I don’t think I’m more important than any senator,” he said. “Any issue I have, I’m willing to let it come to a vote, and if I don’t win, that bespeaks the will of the body.”
Eigel compared the divisions among Senate Republicans to fights in a big family.
“And you know, that I will admit to something you know, it seems like this year the Senate’s had a lot of those kind of disagreements but you know, we’re, we’ve got to get along and we’re going to continue to try and do that and really try to find a good compromise on this map,” he said.
The Senate is essentially split three ways – 10 Democrats, 17 Republicans generally aligned with the leadership and seven in the conservative caucus. In December, the Republicans aligned with leadership — described by one senator as members “who would like to see the session be productive” — met without inviting the conservative caucus.
Other factional fights in the legislature within memory include a rift among Democrats in 1995 and 1996 that almost installed Republican leader Mark Richardson as House Speaker in place of Bob Griffin, who had held the office since 1981.
The 117-member Democratic supermajority when Griffin took office had dwindled to 87. Griffin was saved in 1995 by a Republican defector, winning re-election 82-80.
But the next year, Griffin was deposed as he faced federal indictment. He tried to engineer a successor but 16 Democrats defected and a new speaker wasn’t elected until a Democrat acceptable to the faction was chosen.
Griffin died last year.
In 1970, Senate President Pro Tem Earl Blackwell was removed from his post, because he was feuding with Gov. Warren Hearnes.
What is different now is that, at that time, factions in the majority party had leverage because they were allied with some or all members of the minority party. That made their actions successful.
By targeting one of two Democratic seats from Missouri, the conservative caucus isn’t winning friends in the minority party.
Cierpiot was in the House gallery for the 1995 speaker election, watching his wife, Connie Cierpiot, being sworn in for her first term. The only leverage the conservative caucus has, he argued in an interview Friday, is the Senate rules that allow for unlimited debate.
While cutting off debate and ending a filibuster is possible, a rule change approved by a bipartisan majority makes it more difficult this year.
The majority of Republicans in the Senate are frustrated because the conservative caucus won’t admit it has lost the fight, Cierpiot said.
“I don’t understand the concept of it’s either going to be my way or the highway because if they want to do stuff, then we could vote on it,” Cierpiot said. “And if it wins that’s what’s in the bill and if it doesn’t win it will not be. But we can’t get to that.”
Adding to the pressure is the state’s largest annual gathering of Republicans, Lincoln Days, is underway in St. Charles. Many of the chamber’s 24 Republican members are seeking higher office and would otherwise be there.
Schatz is running for U.S. Senate. Sens. Mike Moon and Eric Burlison are both seeking the 7th Congressional District nomination. Sen. Rick Brattin is running for the 4th Congressional District nomination. Onder and Eigel live in St. Charles County.
The Lincoln Days event could strengthen the conservative caucus’ hand, Eigel said. The chatter among attendees will echo back to Jefferson City and that could include a quick trip to the Capitol.
“We may be having some of those folks, maybe coming down to the Capitol and visiting us while we’re in debate,” Eigel said.
The absence of the Kansas City Chiefs from this year’s Super Bowl removes one possible distraction for the Senate, if leadership decides to stay in continuous session until a map is passed.
Typically the Senate convenes on Monday afternoon and adjourns on Thursday. That leaves members three days at home in most weeks for family and business.
The conservative caucus seems prepared to keep going indefinitely.
“I’m willing to be here Friday, Saturday, Sunday, whatever, whatever length of time is needed to get this discussion done,” Eigel said.
On the Senate floor Friday, Onder said he’s determined to prevail. Onder thinks St. Charles County should be entirely within one congressional district rather than split.
“I am tired of war. I think war was declared on me and my constituents,” he said, adding that he would like to end it, but “I am prepared to fight on.”
Thompson Rehder said she wanted her colleagues to have pity on the staff who have been working long hours and to bring the debate to a resolution that is fair to all sides.
“Yeah, there’s always going to be people who do have their own self-interest,” she said, “but the majority of people are working on this with an honest heart and trying to get to a product that is fitting to the percentage of votes we have in this state, Democrat and Republican.”
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