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Opinion: Freedom Caucus represents uncharted path for Missouri's legislature

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Missouri's Senate is heading into uncharted territory that could disrupt the legislative process for the remaining months of this year's session.

It involves a deep split among Senate Republicans by members of a new national conservative organization who are challenging Missouri GOP Senate leaders.

That national organization, the State Freedom Caucus, on its website proclaims, "We need patriots who will serve in our state capitols to fight overreach and stand firm against those – in both parties – who prioritize seizing political power over representing constituents."

That's virtually a declaration of war against statehouse leaders and suggests the State Freedom Caucus is seeking to be something akin to an alternative national political party. It already is a nationwide movement. Missouri is one of 12 states the organization lists as having legislative members.

The organization's statement of purpose misrepresents the reality of the legislative process. Addressing constituent concerns and political objectives are not always in conflict. While legislation dealing with gun violence in urban cities may have "seizing political power" objectives, it also represents constituent concerns.

The bipartisan vote years ago to expand Medicaid coverage for mothers and their children had significant political benefits, but it also represented constituent concerns for mothers and children.

The recent filibuster by six Freedom Caucus members that lasted more than 10 hours delaying a routine Senate action on nominations from fellow Republican Gov. Mike Parson was a manifestation of a new environment in the Senate.

The filibuster sought to circumvent Senate rules and bring before the chamber a measure to restrict constitutional amendment initiative petitions. That motion would have stripped the Senate's top leader, the president pro tem, of his power to make the committee assignment for the measure.

One of the most significant powers of the pro tem is to assign bills to committee. It's in committee that legislators can hear views from their constituents and then conduct a thoughtful review of what can be accomplished, and compromises negotiated.

The motion also would have undercut the Senate majority leader's authority to determine the chamber's daily agenda.

Although the motion was defeated by an overwhelming bipartisan vote, the Freedom Caucus filibusters continued blocking Senate action.

Senate President Pro Tem Caleb Rowden took that assault seriously when a few days later he stripped four Freedom Caucus members from their committee chairmanships, describing them as "swamp creatures."

Loss of a committee chair is a significant loss of power for a legislator to represent constituents.

A few days later, Senate Republican Leader Cindy O'Laughlin said she would vote to expel one of the Freedom Caucus members from the Senate.

It demonstrates what is emerging as a bitter Republican civil war in the Senate for the remaining months of this year's legislative session.

Granted, the Freedom Caucus represents a minority of Senate Republicans. But as Freedom Caucus members demonstrated, a filibuster for hours by a minority of members can block Senate action.

Rowden suggested the possibility of motions to shut off filibusters in the future. But without the six Freedom Caucus members, Senate Republicans would need the votes of every other 18 Republican members to end a filibuster member.

Otherwise, it would require one or more votes from Senate Democrats, who usually have not supported efforts by the majority Republican Party to shut off debate by Democrats.

And it would require at least five Democrats in order to eject a Senate member.

Maybe the need for support from both parties could be an opportunity for a return to Missouri's history when compromises between Democrats and Republicans achieved major legislative accomplishments.

For example, former Republican Gov. Kit Bond and former Republican Attorney General Jack Danforth championed passage for measures that had been central for Democrats who then controlled the legislature involving consumer protection and stronger ethics laws in government.

The pressing need for peace in the Missouri Senate reminded me of 2017 when Republican Sen. Bob Dixon and Democrat Sen. Kiki Curls rose during a Senate session to jointly sing "Kumbaya" to bring peace within a divided Senate.

Their song did not achieve Senate peace, but maybe the Senate would benefit in bringing Dixon and Curls back to the chamber to sing a song of peace.

Phill Brooks has been a statehouse reporter since 1970, making him the dean of the Missouri statehouse press corps. He is director of Missouri Digital News and an emeritus faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism.


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