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Guns, marriage and the Bible highlight Senate filibuster

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 4, 2011 - At 10 p.m. Tuesday, state Sen. Brian Nieves, R-Washington, was discussing gun rights and the differences between bibliographies and footnotes. And whether to use his "NPR voice."

Earlier, state Sen. Jim Lembke, R-Lemay, spent part of his self-proclaimed "shift" reading from the bible.

So it was on the Missouri Senate floor as four Republicans filibustered a bill -- HB 18 -- that allocated $580 million in federal stimulus money for various projects. Their maneuver could have had serious consequences if the bill isn't passed by Friday.

The filibuster ended about 7 a.m. this morning, when the quartet settled for about $14 million in trims from federally funded weatherization programs. The Senate then swiftly approved the bill, 20-8, and sent it back to the state House, where legislators will take action on the Senate changes.

The four -- Nieves, Lembke, Sens. Rob Schaaf, R-St. Joseph, and Will Kraus, R-Lee's Summit -- contended that they're trying to force GOP state Senate leaders to stick by a deal that they thought had been struck weeks ago.

That deal, they believe, called for turning away $250 million in federal stimulus money to send a message about overspending in Washington. In exchange, the four dropped their earlier filibuster against $105 million in federal unemployment benefits.

But now, the four contend that some fellow Republicans unfairly sought -- and succeeded -- in ignoring that agreement and accepting most of the federal money.

All told, HB 18 initially focused on roughly $580 million in stimulus money, which was to be allocated for such projects as weatherization and improved energy efficiency, improvements to wastewater infrastructure and the expansion of health-care information technology.

The four agreed to drop their filibuster if roughly $41 million worth of spending was taken out of the bill. That money, Lembke said, was for projects that were not under contract or not committed. Earlier, the Senate had agreed to trim out about $114 million in stimulus money that either has been spent or is deemed no longer needed.

In the end, the quartet had to settle for far less in cuts.

Lembke's initial course of action Tuesday was to offer a series of amendments taking federal funding out of the bill. But when his first amendment -- to cut about $8 million for expansion of rural broadband -- failed around 4:30 p.m., the four launched their filibuster that lasted throughout the night.

Lembke said on the floor that his opposition is rooted in sending a message that the federal government is spending too much.

"That's exactly what's going on here; it's legal plunder," Lembke said in an exchange with Schaaf. "And we'll be talking about that concept of 'legal plunder' for a long time."

Appropriations chairman Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, said he sympathized with the quartet's sentiment, but believed their course of action was wrongheaded.

"I think you're trying to solve a problem as a state senator that we cannot control, that's coming out of Washington, D.C.," Schaefer said. "I agree that the federal government has been reckless and out-of-control in its spending. But I also believe that taking away that appropriation authority does nothing to alleviate that problem."

The filibuster prompted a flurry of lively exchanges, and not just on the Senate floor. Legislators and reporters were busily Tweeting updates for hours.

The Senate must pass budget bills by 6 p.m. on Friday. And, as Nieves noted on the floor, blocking HB 18 might lead to its entire demise.

"I think this is the decision that each and every senator has to make: Are the rest of the dollars in House Bill 18 that we're not going after, are those dollars more or less important than the dollars in this amendment?" Nieves said, in a filibuster exchange with Lembke.

"Because I don't have a crystal ball, I don't know what's going to happen with our final outcome of this whole thing. I cannot predict that we're going to be successful or fail."

But then he added, "I can say with some certainty that we are going to be here a very, very, very, very long, long time talking about House Bill 18. And there's a good chance that House Bill 18 will never come up for a vote."

At 10:30 p.m. Tuesday, Nieves was offering a vivid -- and occasionally gory -- account of his 10-year career in the Marines.

By 7 a.m. though, the Senate had heard enough, and the filibustering quartet opted to cut their losses, settle for what they could get and move on. Their experience could become a time-killing topic in their next filibuster.

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.
Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.