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ANALYSIS: Factions split Missouri Senate Republicans

ANALYSIS: Factions split Missouri Senate Republicans

The behind-the-scenes battle is expected to climax Nov. 4

October 4th, 2010 in News

In today's era of term limits, a full political generation has passed since Republicans seized numerical control of the Missouri Senate almost a decade ago.

Now firmly established as the majority, Senate Republicans still are struggling -- among themselves -- for control of the chamber.

One faction of Republicans is looking to unseat another from the chamber's leadership positions in a quest for a more conservative agenda. Some senators have routed thousands of dollars to the campaigns of their prospective allies. And tensions are rising.

"Quite honestly, I think there's a battle for the soul of the Senate going on," said Sen. Scott Rupp, R-Wentzville. "There's no disagreement the Senate is dysfunctional, and some would say on the verge of being broken."

The behind-the-scenes battle is expected to climax Nov. 4 -- two days after the general election -- when Senate Republicans caucus behind closed doors to choose leaders for the 2011 and 2012 legislative sessions.

For the first time since Republicans assumed control of the chamber in 2001, there may be a challenge to the senator in line to ascend to the top position of president pro tem.

Under recent Senate tradition, Majority Leader Kevin Engler, RFarmington, would be expected in January to succeed President Pro Tem Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph, who was prohibited by Missouri's term limits of roughly eight years in each chamber from seeking re-election this year.

But some Republican senators are backing a potential challenge by Appropriations Committee Chairman Rob Mayer, R-Dexter. Mayer said he is contemplating running not on his own initiative but because of the urging of others.

Among those supporting his potential candidacy is Sen. Chuck Purgason, R-Caulfield, who ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Senate this year and staged an all-night filibuster this summer against legislation authorizing tax incentives for Ford Motor Co. and other automakers.

Purgason is particularly frustrated that Republicans have not used their majority to replace the state's individual income tax, abolish corporate taxes and enact "rightto-work" laws favored by many businesses and opposed by labor unions.

Other dissatisfied Republicans would include on the to-do list such things as a mandatory photo ID requirement for voting, an overhaul of the state's insolvent unemployment benefits fund and the potential elimination of its Second Injury Fund for people who suffer repeated on-the-job injuries. None of those received significant Senate debate time last year.

"What I'm frustrated with is, for the last two to four years, we've had a Senate that has not been able to move a center-right agenda," said Sen. Brad Lager, R-Savannah. More than that, "we haven't had a plan or agenda," he added.

Republicans hold a 23-11 advantage over Senate Democrats. But the GOP has often been divided among itself. And Engler is fond of consensus.

When bills are brought to the Senate floor for debate, Engler typically allows sponsors an hour or two to gauge support. If opposition arises, he urges that bills be set aside for further negotiations. Sometimes those bills come back for debate and are passed the next day; sometimes that takes weeks; sometimes bills never resurface.

Engler describes his style as diplomatic.

"I think I've done a good job in leading the Senate in turbulent times," he said. "In the next couple of years we've got major challenges, and it's going to take someone who's patient with all sides and not someone who's just so right-wing that if you're not with us 100 percent of the time you're against us."

If he were to challenge Engler, Mayer said, he would do so in an attempt to unite the Republican caucus.

"I feel that we can bring all the different factions of this Senate together to work in harmony to get some things done," Mayer said.

The pro tem's race could be one of just several contested leadership votes. Lager, Rupp and Sen. Tom Dempsey, R-St. Peters, all are considering a run for Engler's current job of majority leader. Purgason said he also is eyeing a leadership post. So, too, may be others.

The conservative-to-moderate policy differences are just one example of the divisions.

There also are likely to be some awkward moments within the Republican caucus as a result of the large campaign contributions given by individual senators and the GOP Senate political action committee to certain candidates in Republican primaries, at the expense of others.

Lager, who has doled out some of those side-picking political contributions, said the divisions are a natural result of the Republicans' past electoral success.

"We've been fortunate to continue to grow the numbers," he said. "Now what's happened is the majorities have become so large, that even within one party there are different thoughts."