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Missouri's delegation in Congress wants to focus on common ground

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 8, 2010 - WASHINGTON - From the inner city of St. Louis to the rolling hills of the Ozarks, the interests and politics of Missouri are diverse. While the disagreements over national issues among the Republicans and Democrats who represent the state often mirror the partisan debates that divide Congress, key members of the state's delegation on Capitol Hill say that -- despite their partisan and policy differences -- they are committed to informal regular meetings to find some common ground on issues important to the state.

"I believe in collegiality," said U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Cape Girardeau, who will become the dean of Missouri's congressional delegation after the retirement in early January of U.S. Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Lexington. "We're one of the very fortunate  delegations; all of us get along," said Emerson, who has represented her southeastern Missouri district since 1996. "And there are a lot of things that we can all do together for the state, whether it is related to transportation or other issues."

Whether the issue is finding support for regional projects like the Gateway Arch park expansion or exploring ways to promote Missouri's mining of rare earth minerals better, members of the delegation often discuss possible collaborations and taking advantage of Missouri links on key congressional committees. For example, when Republicans take over the leadership of the new Congress in January, Emerson will chair an important Appropriations subcommittee. And Skelton helped out colleagues as chair of the House Armed Services Committee.

But there are seeds of possible tensions in Missouri's delegation, especially with the changes in the new Congress. Aside from the party differences and political rivalries, some members were stunned by Skelton's loss in the November election to former Missouri House member Vicky Hartzler, who got support from local tea party activists. Another tea party favorite, Ozarks auctioneer Billy Long, was elected to represent the 7th congressional district in Southwest Missouri.

That influx of tea-soaked conservatism may ruffle some feathers in the House, but Missouri Republicans in the delegation predict that the two newcomers likely will be cooperative on issues that are important to the state.

Missouri's nine U.S. House members have been meeting informally every month or so for several years. Missouri's new U.S. Senator-elect, U.S. Rep. Roy Blunt, R-Springfield, helped organize and hosted the meetings at his office in the Capitol.

"My first year as the majority whip, I began to get our delegation together every month," Blunt said. "It was a delegation of people who had known each other for a long time. And I think our delegation gets along very well. Even though we don't always agree on policy, I think that personally we have been friendly."

Blunt said the delegation meetings "have been useful for any number of things that Missouri needs to be unified on. Sometimes it's no more than a matter of somebody telling you about something they're working on and that it clearly would be of benefit to their part of our state, and consequently the whole state. It's not at all unusual for members to say, 'You can put me on that bill as a cosponsor if you want to.'"

He said "most states are pretty envious" because their delegations don't hold regular meetings.

Emerson told the Beacon that she wants to follow in that tradition, and has organized a Missouri delegation breakfast on Jan. 6 in her new office in the Rayburn House Office Building. In an effort to expand the scope of the delegation meetings, she also plans to invite the state's two U.S. senators to the monthly sessions.

U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said she "absolutely" would take part in regular delegation meetings, if asked. "I would welcome that invitation, and I look forward to it," she told the Beacon. In the past, McCaskill said, "I have typically not been invited to the delegation meetings on the House side," and neither has U.S. Sen. Christopher Kit Bond, R-Mo. But she added: "Kit and I talked all the time, so we didn't need a meeting because it was just the two of us."

After Bond's retirement, McCaskill will become the state's senior U.S. senator when the new Congress convenes in early January. The junior senator will be Blunt, whose son, Matt Blunt, defeated McCaskill in the 2004 governor's race. While that would seem to lead to political tensions -- given that McCaskill is up for re-election in 2012 -- Blunt said that he would be happy to cooperate with Missouri's senior senator on issues of mutual interest.

"We'll be able to work together," Blunt told the Beacon in an interview Tuesday. "We won't agree on lots of things, but we'll get along fine." He added: "I worked with Claire when I was Missouri's secretary of state and she was an effective legislator. I look forward to finding the things that Claire and I can work together on -- and having an honest disagreement about the things that we disagree on."

In his Senate race, Blunt defeated the current secretary of state, Robin Carnahan, whose brother is U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-St. Louis. Again, there is potential for political tensions, but both legislators say they can work with the other without rancor.

"I get along with Russ," Blunt said. "And Ike Skelton has been a close friend of mine." Even so, Blunt said, "I think Vicky [Hartzler] is going to be a great member of Congress. And I think the delegation will continue to get along well."

For his part, Russ Carnahan says he enjoys getting together with members of Missouri's delegation -- Democrat and Republican -- and thinks monthly sessions are a good idea. He says he supports inviting Missouri's senators to the meetings and gets along well with Blunt. "I've worked with Roy before on Missouri issues, and we talked before and after the election," said Carnahan.

The Missouri members of Congress met last week in a bipartisan farewell dinner in the Capitol for Bond and Skelton, both of whom were favorites in the delegation and discussed the idea of including the senators. "It's been a good way for the delegation to get together. Nearly everybody shows up to talk about issues important to the state and things we can work on together."

Carnahan said, "We don't agree on everything, obviously. But there are some good common-ground things that we can work on."

Rob Koenig is an award-winning journalist and author. He worked at the STL Beacon until 2013.