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By Phill Brooks
«RM75»«FC»COL242.PRB - Getting Even
The partisan turmoil in the U.S. Senate over the filibuster of Neil Gorsuch's nomination to the Supreme Court echoes a Missouri filibuster not too many years ago.
In the U.S. Senate, Democrats complained about the refusal of Senate Republicans to consider the earlier Supreme Court nomination of Pres. Barack Obama in hopes a Republican would be elected president.
I sensed among some a clear tone to "get even."
I've sensed the same attitude in Missouri's Senate.
"Getting even" was openly acknowledged by the Missouri state senator who conducted a filibuster a few years ago -- Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis.
She was angry at something Senate Republicans had done earlier in the session.
Neither one of us could remember the bill of her filibuster when I talked with her for this column -- it was that unimportant. What mattered was getting even.
There are a couple of lessons the United States Senate could learn from the experiences of Missouri's Senate with filibusters.
One is that lowering the vote required to shut off debate on a Supreme Court nomination may not be as serious as the term "nuclear option" implies.
For decades, Missouri Senate rules have required only a majority of the Senate to vote to end a filibuster -- on any subject.
Yet, the motion to shut off debate has been used rarely -- just for three bills in the past decade.
It's a sign that senators, from both parties, treasure the power each member enjoys to stop a vote in order to force a compromise.
I've never sensed that the majority leadership took lightly the decision to "move the previous question" to such off debate.
There's another possible lesson from Missouri for the U.S. Senate. It's the price the majority party pays when it votes to silence the minority party.
That happened two years ago when Republicans shut off debate and forced a vote on legislation to ban requiring workers to join unions or pay union fees -- what supporters term the "right to work" legislation.
In retaliation, Democrats promptly launched a series of filibusters that stopped almost any further action in the legislature's final days -- except for one bill Democrats wanted passed.
It was so bad, that the Senate leadership simply gave up and adjourned the 2015 session three hours early with a pile of bills awaiting action.
Contributing to the Democrats' anger was the absence of any real governmental purpose in silencing the Democrats. Republicans lacked the two-thirds majority to override the certain veto by Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon.
As expected, Nixon did veto the bill and Republicans could not muster the votes for an override.
This "getting even" motivation might seem petty, but there actually is a more substantive purpose when the party silenced retaliates by slowing down the process.
As some Democrats explained in 2015, they needed to demonstrate to Republicans the consequences of forcing a senator into silence with the "previous question" motion.
"You're going to see how hard it can be made to get business done in the Senate when people insist on being unilateral," warned Sen. Scott Sifton, D-St. Louis County, shortly after the Republicans had forced the vote.
There is another potential lesson for Washington from Missouri -- sometimes the chief executive can be at the receiving end of getting even.
That happened in 1970 when a Democrat-controlled Senate had to force a vote on a a tax increase backed by their own party's governor, Warren Hearnes.
Many Democrats back then were fiercely conservative. They were not happy that their party's governor had led the state into a financial crisis that left them with no option but to terminate a filibuster and pass the income tax increase.
As a consequence, Hearnes finished his final two years as governor facing an openly hostile Senate. He was the subject of continuing public attacks in the Senate that helped contribute to his failures to ever again win elective state office.
Senate Democrats had gotten even with their Democratic governor.
[Phill Brooks has been a Missouri statehouse reporter since 1970, making him dean of the statehouse press corps. He is the statehouse correspondent for KMOX Radio, director of MDN and an emeritus faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism. He has covered every governor since the late Warren Hearnes.]
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