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Filibuster Highlights Senate Tradition

May 07, 1999
By: David Grebe
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - Throughout last week's filibuster over partial birth abortion members echoed the name of a long-gone senator -- Earl Blackwell.

He was the last senator to lead a filibuster comparable in length to the last week's.

It was back in 1970 when Gov. Warren E. Hearnes was seeking an income tax increase - the state was in dire straits financially. Blackwell termed the income tax "the root of all evil."

Blackwell was a Democrat from Hillsboro in Jefferson County and the Senate's President Pro Tem -- the chamber's top elected leader.

Blackwell had led a petition campaign to put the legislative-approved tax hike on the statewide ballot. When voters rejected the tax, Hearnes called a special session to re-pass the tax increase despite voter rejection.

That's what triggered Blackwell's filibuster.

He conducted a filibuster that lasted for days -- a filibuster that drove senators to sleep on cots in the hallway in a futile effort to block the governor's income tax increase.

Hearnes prevailed - but political fallout lasted for quite awhile. "He not only got his tax hike passed, he got me out," as Senate President, Blackwell said of his ouster as the Senate's top leader.

One reason filibusters are rare, Blackwell noted, is that threat alone is usually enough. "But it depends on who's making the threat, if they know you damn well mean business," he said.

But Blackwell's threats, however effective, weren't enough to keep the Senate from action. Nor was his filibuster - it was one of three times in 30 years the Senate has moved to shut off debate.

Sometimes a train wreck on the Senate floor is unavoidable. "I was in a war with the Governor a the time," Blackwell said. "I knew he was down there in his office steaming, and I didn't care a damn bit," he said. "We were spending way too much money - we didn't need all these new programs" the governor was creating.

"He finally got me," Blackwell said. "The governor doesn't run out of ammunition - a Senate President does."

Blackwell - now a senior circuit judge in Hillsboro - noted you'll usually find the governor's hands in a filibuster - and this year Gov. Mel Carnahan appeared to side with the loquaicious. Carnahan's promised to veto the partial birth abortion bill.

Sen. John Schneider, D-St. Louis County, then a member of the House, said he watched Blackwell from the galleries - and decided to run for Senate.

"He's one of the people I model myself after," Schneider said. "He displayed a lot of courage against powerful forces."

But Schneider added that he supported the governor at the time.

This time Jacob and Maxwell threw in the towel after prolonging debate for 5 days - sometimes into the early morning.

"The last seven days alone I've been in this job 127 hours," said Joe Maxwell, D-Mexico, shortly after the filibuster ended. But Schneider said he thought the debate helped to improve the bill.

"It forced a real engagement," Schneider said. Despite Schneider's support of the bill, he saw value in the debate - by preserving the idea that every senator can stop the process, it presents a way for a minority to express itself. "It 's a wonderful protection for the people," Schneider said.

Schneider contrasted the Senate with the House - and said "they don't even follow the rules over there." He notes "powerful forces pushing to get things done" - and says this makes Senate's deliberative procedure essential to the process.

But last Wednesday morning showed that the Senate moves in the end. The fact every Senator has the chance to filibuster, Schneider said, helps to ensure it's used sparingly.

Talking isn't the only way to derail a bill - passive aggression sometimes helps. Sen. J.B. "Jet" Banks, D-St. Louis City, tied up the Senate for over an hour earlier this week - after he left the floor with an amendment pending.

Banks amendment - offered in the midst of the filibuster - led the Senate to take a rare action. Senators decided to "move the previous question," and vote on Banks amendment even though he wasn't there. This was last done in 1983 - during a school busing debate Schneider said was marked by "racial overtones" that didn't belong in Senate debate.

Banks was later found by reporters in a Jefferson City Ramada.

But the Senate's distance from external reality may be dying out - because of term limits. After 2002, the average tenure of senators may well be less than the House - as term limits restrict Senators to six years of service.

"I think that's (extended debate) one of the things that's going to fall with term limits," Schneider. Schneider, who'll be forced out in 2002, is a diehard opponent of term limits.

"Term limits dramatically increase the power of the Governor," Schneider said. The courage of people like Blackwell, Schneider said, may be gone soon.

"You'll have all these politicians who won't need to be re-elected again - and look what a governor can give away." Term limits limit future Senators to one term - and a total of 14 years in the Assembly.