Missouri legislature returns with GOP infighting hanging over a lengthy agenda
Congressional redistricting and a massive budget surplus await lawmakers as they return from spring break on Monday
House Speaker Rob Vescovo, R-Arnold, visits on the side gallery of the House with Senate Majority Leader Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, in May 2020 (photo by Tim Bommel/Missouri House of Representatives).
Missouri lawmakers return to the state Capitol Monday to kick off the second half of the 2022 legislative session, facing a laundry list of unfinished business and simmering dysfunction.
The Missouri House, which passed a parade of legislative priorities during the first half of the session, will return to tackle a state budget overflowing with surplus cash.
Across the Capitol rotunda in the state Senate, Republicans simply hope to put the last three months of vitriolic infighting — and the resulting procedural gridlock — in the rearview mirror.
Whether the bad blood in the Senate can be put to bed will ultimately determine whether either chamber can declare the session a success when the General Assembly adjourns for the year at 6 p.m. on May 13.
“The Senate is, by nature, and by the way that it was formed, meant to be deliberative,” said Senate Majority Leader Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia. “And in some cases, very, very deliberative. It was not meant to be dysfunctional.”
Sen. Mike Moon, an Ash Grove Republican who has frequently used the filibuster to derail the chamber this session — usually by reading aloud to halt progress on routine procedures — made it clear he has no intention of going quietly into the night.
“One of the primary functions of government is to protect the God-given rights of our Missouri citizens and residents,” he said. “We tend to pass bills that strip liberty and freedom from Missouri hands, every single session. … I prefer not to pass bills that are stripping liberties and freedoms. And if that takes reading a book, then I’ll read a book.”
GOP vs. GOP
The biggest task left undone from the first half of the 2022 session remains redrawing Missouri’s congressional maps.
The once-a-decade redistricting process sailed smoothly through the House only to run aground in the Senate, where the GOP factions that have been at war with each other for more than a year squared off on just how much to gerrymander a Democratic district in Kansas City.
Republican leaders backed a map that essentially kept the partisan breakdown of the state’s delegation unchanged, with six safe Republican districts and two Democratic districts in Kansas City and St. Louis.
The seven members of the Senate’s conservative caucus, however, demanded a map that cracked the Kansas City district and combined it with a huge swath of rural counties to make it possible for the GOP to capture the seat.
The “6-2” vs. “7-1” debate came to a head in February when the conservative caucus began a filibuster that blocked progress not only on the redistricting plan but also on basically every other bill. At one point, two Republican Senators got into a shouting match and had to be physically separated.
Since then, conservative caucus filibusters have become the norm, with the Senate regularly unable to conduct business.
Missouri remains one of only a few states that has yet to enact new congressional districts following the 2020 census. The impasse inspired a lawsuit, filed on behalf of Missouri voters by Democratic attorneys, asking a court to intervene.
Only one piece of legislation this year — a supplemental budget bill to keep government services functioning — has managed to navigate the discord and find its way to the governor’s desk.
The Senate drama reached arguably its ugliest point in the days just before legislative spring break, during debate over a bill establishing a bill of rights for survivors of sexual assault.
Sen. Rick Brattin, R-Harrisonville, tried to attach an amendment to criminalize “obscene” material in schools. The sponsor of the sexual assault survivors legislation, GOP Sen. Holly Thompson Rehder of Sikeston, pleaded with him to drop the amendment out of concern it would be a poison pill that would kill the entire bill.
Brattin refused, and the bill was set aside.
The next day, Rehder convened a press conference, and surrounded by nine Democrats and 13 Republicans, blasted the conservative caucus for “constant adversarial and classless actions.”
Sen. Bill Eigel, a Weldon Spring Republican and conservative caucus member, responded by saying the press conference was evidence GOP leadership didn’t want peace in the chamber, which he said would result in the Senate functioning like “a square wheel for the next eight weeks.”
COVID, guns and abortion
While the Senate struggled, the House churned through a litany of Republican priority legislation.
The chamber approved bills seeking to block vaccine mandates and restrict the power of hospitals and nursing homes to limit patient visitors. It passed a pair of school-choice measures — one shifting funds to charter schools and another creating an open enrollment system.
Bills enacting a photo ID requirement to cast a ballot and making it harder to amend the state constitution through the initiative petition process also found success. And it approved bills allowing firearms on public transportation, reducing the age requirement for a concealed carry permit and removing a prohibition on carrying of firearms in churches and other places of worship.
Upon its return Monday, the House is expected to debate bills restricting access to abortion — including a proposal to make it illegal to “aid or abet” abortions outlawed in Missouri, even if they are conducted in other states.
“We’re extremely proud of what (we’ve) been able to accomplish and we’re hopeful the Senate will be able to take up many of these measures and pass them into law in the final eight weeks when we return from break,” House Speaker Rob Vescovo and House Majority Leader Dean Plocher said in a prepared statement.
But whether or not the Senate can come unstuck remains to be seen.
House Minority Leader Crystal Quade, D-Springfield, called the Senate dysfunction a double edge sword. It means a lot of good bills may end up dying, but it also could kill a lot of proposals her party believes are bad for Missouri.
“Here in the House, we’re seeing a whole bunch of attacks against voter access, and we’re seeing a lot of bills that our caucus is against,” she said. “And so yes, in some ways, we are happy with what’s going on in the Senate. It makes our jobs a little bit easier when it comes to trying to push back against that.”
Rowden hinted just before spring break that GOP leaders are considering all options to break through the gridlock — including going nuclear and using procedural maneuvers to thwart conservative caucus filibusters.
“I think we certainly are at a point where everything is on the table,” Rowden said. “Everything has to be on the table, because the thing that we cannot afford is to continue to embarrass ourselves in front of the people of Missouri by saying we are not able, willing, competent, whatever the word is, enough to do what they sent us here to do.”
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