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Missouri Senate divisions on full display in session’s final days

by Rudi Keller | May 12, 2022 at 4:00 a.m.

The halls of the Missouri Capitol on Tuesday didn't look like time was running out on the 2022 legislative session.

The third-floor Rotunda between the House and Senate, usually bustling with activity as lobbyists confer with lawmakers and shuttle between the chambers to check the viability of amendments with less than 100 hours to go, was almost deserted.

And with members of the Senate conservative caucus, the source of repeated filibusters this year, threatening yet again to shut down debate over congressional redistricting, the prospects for many bills awaiting debate or in final negotiations was uncertain.

"The session is over when the maps come up," Sen. Bob Onder said Tuesday on the floor.

When the day began, the Senate had 27 House bills on its formal calendar, bills that must be taken up in order. There were nine more House bills on the informal calendar, legislation that can be brought up at any time, along with 10 bills in conference committees negotiating differences between the chambers.

Any bill that triggers a filibuster could kill many, if not all, of the pending bills. Members have invested many hours into the work, and the GOP leadership has grown weary of the demands of the conservative caucus.

"If you have to threaten, that doesn't tell me you are in a very strong position," Senate Assistant Majority Leader Bill White, of Joplin, said to Onder during debate Tuesday.

Some relatively non-controversial measures are moving, including a bill to improve student literacy, awaiting a final House vote after passage in the Senate, one tax credits for agriculture industries, which passed both chambers, and to regulate professional licenses, which needs one more Senate vote.

Then there are bills certain to generate intense debate, including a resolution to trigger Missouri's law banning abortions except in medical emergencies and proposed constitutional amendments to allow lawmakers to refuse to fund the Medicaid expansion program and to change how the constitution itself is amended by voters through the initiative process.

However, the issue that has bedeviled the Senate all year -- and threatens to upend the legislative session once and for all this week -- is congressional redistricting.

The House needed just two weeks from the opening of the session to pass a plan to revise the state's eight U.S. House districts. It took another two months for the Senate to get its own plan to a vote.

And since then, there has been little progress. In an attempt to force a decision, the House passed a new map Monday, and it was set for a hearing Wednesday in the Senate Select Committee on Redistricting.

Missouri is the only state that has not at least passed a new congressional map. If no plan is passed by Friday, the job will fall to a panel of three federal judges.

The vote Monday on redistricting shows the House is functioning normally. And that business as usual approach continued Tuesday.

This is the time of year when lawmakers look for bills that have a connection, no matter how tenuous, to their priority legislation and look for places to attach amendments. That was in evidence on a bill that began in the Senate as a change to a single section of law governing financial reporting requirements for political subdivisions. By the time it left a House committee, it changed 35 sections of the statutes including laws governing foreclosure sales and the operation of county planning boards.

On the House floor Tuesday, it took on another 13 amendments, with eight additional amendments to those amendments, so the bill also bars investments in Russia, limits the ability of local health authorities to deal with pandemic diseases and requires reports to the Legislature on the operation of the medical marijuana program.

Asked about the potential for a Senate impasse that would kill most pending bills, House Majority Leader Dean Plocher was philosophical.

"We're eternal optimists in this building," said Plocher, R-Des Peres.

However, few shared that sentiment in the Senate.

Throughout the session, observers have said repeatedly they have never seen the Senate so wracked by factions. The animosity between the seven members of the conservative caucus and the 17 Republicans generally aligned with leadership became evident last year and led to the Senate adjourning five hours before the constitutional deadline.

On Tuesday, many lobbyists were privately saying they weren't certain the chamber would continue working up to the 6 p.m. Friday adjournment. Some even predicted a Thursday adjournment.

The bitterness of some of the debate Tuesday showed they may be correct.

For two hours, Sen. Holly Thompson Rehder, R-Sikeston, worked to win approval of a bill intended to strengthen the Sexual Assault Survivors Biill of Rights that had grown in the House to include new provisions to fight child sex trafficking.

It was the second time she has sparred with members of the conservative caucus over the bill, and Thompson Rehder has had enough.

Onder objected to the final bill that was negotiated in a conference committee.

It was two votes -- one in the Senate and one in the House -- away from Gov. Mike Parson's desk.

"I am reading this senator, and I want to know, does sub five on page 40, does it legalize the prostitution of minors?" Onder asked, referring to a subsection of the bill.

"I'm sorry, what?" Rehder replied.

Onder repeated the question.

"It does not," she said.

Before the final vote, Onder raised a point of order to prevent passage. The final bill, he said, violated the constitution's limits on changing the original purpose.

"The problem I have here are a number of provisions that have never been properly vetted," Onder said.

Once his objection had been overruled, Rehder made it clear how offended she was. The issue Onder raised, she said, had been discussed repeatedly on other bills. But it was this bill, aimed at women victimized by sexual assault, she noted, when a formal objection was made.

"This is the bill he wants to throw down on," Rehder said before pausing for six seconds.

"I find it more than disappointing," Rehder said. "I find it disturbing."

Onder left the chamber. The final vote was 32-1, with only Sen. Mike Moon, R-Ash Grove, opposed.

The Missouri Independent is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization covering state government and its impact on Missourians.

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