State Sen. Bill Eigel, R-Weldon Spring, speaks Thursday at a news conference as other members of the conservative caucus, Sens. Denny Hoskins, R-Warrensburg, left, and Bob Onder, R-Lake St. Louis, listen (Rudi Keller/Missouri Independent).
And when the deadlock was finally broken Thursday, was over, no one was predicting the final seven weeks of the session would see an end to the intra-party strife. The conservative caucus, which demanded but did not get a map that would make 7 Republican victories likely, sees it as one battle in a larger struggle.
“I don’t expect next week to be any easier than this week,” said Sen. Bill Eigel, R-Weldon Spring, speaking Thursday for the seven-member conservative caucus.
Democrats, who have no incentive to help the GOP patch up differences on policies they oppose, also expect continued fighting.
“I don’t believe that anyone should take from this that this was a healing week or that this is a healing moment in the Senate,” Senate Minority Leader John Rizzo said. “We are continually held hostage by what I would consider the extreme super-minority in the Senate of a group of Republican Senators who try to hijack bills of their own party.”
And Senate Majority Leader Caleb Rowden, who is the one trying to herd the 24-member Republican caucus in the same direction, said his hope is that when an idea can’t pass, members accept that fact.
“We’ve got to figure out a way to understand that we can work together and prioritize each others’ things and in doing so you kind of lift each others’ stuff up instead of saying, ‘If I am going down I am dragging you down with me,’” Rowden, R-Columbia, said.
The biggest item remaining for lawmakers is the state budget, which must be completed one week before the final May 13 adjournment.
Passing a bill in the 34-member Senate requires 18 votes. When the Senate adjourned in May 2021, there were 17 Republicans generally aligned with the leadership, seven in the conservative caucus and 10 Democrats.
That divide has only hardened since the session began. It has recently become part of a weekly ritual in the General Assembly – the weekly news conference by Senate leaders.
First up comes the majority leadership, there to tout accomplishments and defend controversial legislation. Next comes the minority leadership, often critical of policies they oppose. In recent weeks, the conservative caucus has added its voice to distinguish their views from GOP leaders.
Democrats walk a fine line in the alignment. At times, it makes their votes important to passing bills but they also have to temper criticism of stall tactics. On Monday evening, for example, Democrats prevented passage of a bill that would limit the duration of unemployment benefits while at the same time forgiving some unemployment debts from 2020.
It is important to keep disagreements on one issue from poisoning relationships needed to pass other measures, Rizzo, D-Independence, said during his turn on Thursday.
He described how he and Rowden worked to limit spillover of resentments from the congressional district debate into other issues. They agreed that the redistricting plan and the supplemental budget bill for the year were must-pass bills, he said.
The 2021 session ended “pretty raw,” Rizzo noted.
“We talked about siloing off the maps as well as the supplemental budget as the things we had to get done,” he said.
Filibusters aren’t a bad thing, Rowden said, if they force an agreement on tough issues. The Senate was in continuous session – although at ease for about six hours in the early mornings – from mid-afternoon Wednesday to after noon on Thursday.
“I think today was, I think, a moment where the place worked the way it is supposed to,” Rowden said. “When we started it 12 hours ago, we were pretty far apart and we got to where we needed to be.”
For much of the time the Senate was in session, however, the bill on the floor was one designed to protect employees who object to job requirements to take a vaccine against COVID-19.
Members of the conservative caucus have complained repeatedly on the floor that they are not being respected by leadership. Bills that went to committees led by members are now going elsewhere and their ideas are rolled into other lawmakers’ bills and diluted, they said.
On the vaccine mandate legislation, Eigel wanted to give employees the right to sue employers who took any action against them for declining to be vaccinated. He used procedural moves to tie up the bill with amendments but failed to get them to a vote.
That has been a regular pattern with conservative caucus amendments. Sen. Holly Thompson Rehder, R-Sikeston, has become a harsh critic. When Sen. Rick Brattin, R-Harrisonville, tried to attach an amendment to criminalize “obscene” material in schools to a bill she had worked on for months laying out a sexual assault survivors bill of rights, Thompson Rehder pleaded with him to drop it, concerned it would be a poison pill that would kill the entire bill.
Brattin refused, and the bill was set aside.
The stall tactics used by members of the conservative caucus include preventing a vote on the previous day’s journal, always the first order of daily business, often to air grievances. When not engaged in discussion of grievances with GOP leaders, floor tactics include lengthy readings from favorite books.
“Despite constant adversarial and classless actions, they seem shocked and appalled daily that no one is rushing to help them get their legislation passed,” Thompson Rehder wrote in a March 11 column to constituents. “All they are after are political stunts and campaign sound bites.”
At Thursday’s news conference, Eigel said the conservative caucus wants bills that require photo identification to vote and make it harder to cure defects in a returned absentee ballot, to ban transgender youth from participating in sports except in the gender assigned at birth and to roll back last year’s gas tax increase.
“I expect difficult conversations to continue over the next seven weeks of the session,” Eigel said.
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