Senate Showdown

A note to Joe and Josephine Missouri, who will probably go on with their lives this week as they do most weeks, paying attention to their own lives and whatever dramas there might be in them:

While you are living detached from the political tumult that is the Missouri legislative session, those whose entire lives are focused on deciding how you are touched by government are girding for a fierce two-week period that could touch you in many ways. It’s okay if you go about your jobs, you hobbies, and your lives. It’s called having a normal existence. But there is a place that will be distinctly apart from that kind of life for the next two weeks. It is your capitol and this is the time of year when 197 men and women, more or less, can find themselves consumed by a far different world. Those of us who are the capitol press corps will be consumed along with them in covering the process of government. We will see men and women at times locked in political and philosophical battles that seem to those caught up in them as only slightly short of the angels versus Lucifer.

Well, maybe not quite that serious. But in the heat of the issues and the pressure of approaching adjournment, the confrontations assume increasing gravity and urgency.

We have our first such situation right out of the box this week. It’s Senator Jim Lembke and his handful of allies fortified with a promise from the senate leadership versus the chairman of the senate’s appropriations committee and the rest of the senate. This is the confrontational week over a nearly-$600 million re-appropriations bill that promises to be the first battle in the week the entire state operations budget must be approved. The constitution requires it. Let’s see if we can identify the players.

There’s Lembke, of course, and his small band of vocal and silent supporters who believes Congress will find it significant that they keep Missouri from accepting $250 million in federal funds because they think the federal government is giving the states money it doesn’t have or has to borrow from foreign governments. Last week when Lembke tried to reject federal money in various bills that make up the operational budget, he never had more than six votes. He needs 18 to prevail.

There’s Senate President pro tem Rob Mayer, who broke the Lembke band’s month-long holdup of federal funds for extended unemployment benefits a couple of weeks ago. The highlight of the deal was that Lembke could cut $250 million out of a re-appropriations bill, House Bill 18, if he and his friends quit blocking state acceptance of about 100 million federal dollars for jobless benefits.. House Bill 18 was approved by the House last week. It contains money for the next fiscal year for projects previously approved by the legislature but continuing or starting in the fiscal year beginning July 1.

There’s the senate appropriations chairman, Kurt Schaefer, who tersely told us last week that he was not part of any deal between Mayer and Lembke. Schaefer will handle HB 18 during Senate debate. Last week the Senate approved the operational budget as recommended by Schaefer’s committee with little debate-other than some efforts by Lembke and friends to remove ninety-some million dollars in federal funds. The score in the votes on those bills and amendments was generally Senate 28, Lembke 6, give or take, depending on the issue and the number of senators in the chamber.

Lembke told us Friday he hopes Schaefer will introduce a substitute to HB 18 that will include Lembke’s $250 million cuts When we told Lembke what Schaefer had told us, Lembke paused for about one quarter of a beat and suggested there might have to be extended discussion about the bill if that was the case.

Then there are at least two supporting characters in our drama.

There’s rookie Senator John Lamping of Clayton who basically told Lembke last week he’s tilting at windmills because his proposals mean nothing to Washington; that the solution Lembke thinks he can help bring about won’t occur until there is a federal bankruptcy.

And there’s Chuck Purgason. You remember him as the conductor of an overnight filibuster in last summer’s special session on tax credits. Although he has voted with Lembke, he also has told Lembke his gesture lacks any clout in Washington.

So the stage is set.

Can the Lembke faction jawbone the senate into agreement? Will the senate, in effect, say to its President pro Tem that he can’t commit the entire senate to a course of action? What strategy and tactics will unfold as this situation works itself out? Would Republicans take action to end a filibuster by one of their own members, especially one who is fighting for something the leader of the Senate indicated he could have?

That last question assumes significance in these last two weeks. Every hour that a filibuster continues in these closing days of a session, somebody else’s legislation on the verge of passage dies for lack of floor time. Some group’s hope for favorable legislation winks out. Agendas diminish and fall apart.

Two weeks left. They won’t be dull.

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