Tempers flare in Missouri Senate during GOP fight over initiative petition changes

The bitter feud between a vocal minority of Senate Republicans and the majority of the GOP caucus erupted Thursday into a fit of name-calling and allegations that certain lawmakers hoped to disrupt the regular process of legislation simply to boost their political fortunes.

For almost 11 hours, the intra-party fight kept lawmakers in the Missouri Capitol, a marked contrast to the regular course of business on a Thursday in the Senate when legislators usually head home by the early afternoon.

Instead, senators spent two hours debating whether to invoke a little-used rule to have the entire Senate act as a "Committee of the Whole" to debate legislation, making it harder to pass a constitutional amendment by initiative petition. And when that effort failed on a 7-25 vote, it triggered a filibuster, with members of the recently formed Freedom Caucus holding confirmation of Gov. Mike Parson's appointees hostage to reverse the earlier vote.

The filibuster ended shortly after 9 p.m., but it resolved nothing. Senate President Pro Tem Caleb Rowden, a Columbia Republican who chairs the appointments committee, withdrew his motion to confirm the 25 appointees and several reappointments without taking action to send the bill raising the bar for passing initiatives to a committee.

During the filibuster, Rowden said he didn't understand blocking appointments from Parson to highlight disagreements within the Senate.

"These people who have agreed to give up their time to (serve the state) don't get to do that because a group of people didn't get their way. Is that where we're at?" Rowden asked Sen. Andrew Koenig, one of those supporting the filibuster.

"Yes," Koenig replied.

It was honest, but it wasn't an answer that pleased Rowden.

"I don't know that I've ever been as disappointed in this chamber as I am right now," Rowden replied. "This is unequivocally, without a doubt, the worst show of bad faith, or the biggest show of bad faith, I have ever seen in my life."

Democrats remained silent throughout the day, refraining from joining the internal Republican dispute. Senate Minority Leader John Rizzo of Independence, in an interview, said factionalism in the GOP is getting worse.

"This is the civil war within the Republican Party that is showing its face and that has come from outside of the smoke-filled back rooms and is now front and center," Rizzo said. "This has been going on for years now. The only difference is that now the public is seeing it."

The "MAGA-Trump" faction in the Republican Party is trying to control the majority, he said.

"They're gaining seats every cycle, and now they're sick and tired of having to take orders from someone else and they are pushing toward an authoritarian government, as we've been saying forever," Rizzo said.

The issue at the root of the dispute -- making it harder for constitutional amendments proposed by initiative petition to pass -- has been a Republican priority for several years. The issue is becoming more urgent because Republicans fear a signature campaign will succeed in putting an initiative on the statewide ballot to restore abortion rights.

With only two elections -- April and August -- available before the general election, the pressure will only grow to pass changes to either increase the majority required (currently 50 percent) or to add a requirement that the majority be achieved in both rural and urban areas.

The personality clashes were on display early and often during the debate.

Senate Majority Leader Cindy O'Laughlin, debating with Sen. Bill Eigel, a GOP candidate for governor, told him he is the "definition of narcissism" and accused him of employing "terrorist tactics" to get his way.

"The fact that you want to circumvent that process tells me you don't care about the constitution, or the process, or the opinion of other people here," said O'Laughlin, a Republican from Shelbina.

Eigel had just said that Senate Republican leadership was "betraying" the voters who gave the GOP 24 of the 34 seats in the Senate.

"This is just the latest dance by our leadership telling us what they think we want to hear, but then taking action that in no way reflects that," Eigel said.

The recently formed Freedom Caucus -- mainly members who had previously been aligned under the banner of the "conservative caucus" -- announced early in the day they would focus on Parson's appointees as a pressure tactic.

"Desperate times call for desperate measures," the caucus's news release stated.

Sen. Rick Brattin, a Harrisonville Republican, said he knew the filibuster to prevent confirmation of 25 appointees and several reappointments would not be popular. Those on the list include Robert Knodell, director of the Department of Social Services, and Paula Nickelson, director of the Department of Health and Senior Services.

"When I was elected by almost 200,000 people, I didn't make an agreement with the people that elected me that I'm gonna be pals with everybody that I'm serving with," Brattin said. "I'm here to advance freedom and liberty at all costs."

The hardball tactics could degenerate into a tit-for-tat dispute that lasts until the session ends in May.

With growing frustration, Rowden said he had never used his leadership role to punish members who disrupted the Senate or accused him of being less than faithful to Republican principles.

"​​If this doesn't change, and we don't figure out how to act like adults, and the people who sent us here actually have some stake in this game," Rowden said, "that is going to change."

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