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Missouri Freedom Caucus may loom large over 2024 legislative session

A white man gestures in the Missouri Senate.
Tristen Rouse
St. Louis Public Radio
Sen. Rick Brattin, R-Harrisonville, a member of the Missouri Freedom Caucus, speaks on the floor of the state Senate last Wednesday during the first day of the 2024 legislative session in Jefferson City.

A group of conservative Missouri House and Senate members who have often clashed with GOP leadership are banding together to push legislation in a more rightward direction.

Whether the Missouri Freedom Caucus can succeed where the now-defunct Conservative Caucus in the Senate sometimes stumbled will be a major storyline of a 2024 session that began last week doused in pessimism.

More than a dozen House and Senate members officially announced the formation of the caucus in St. Charles on Friday. It’s being supported by the national Freedom Caucus, a group of GOP congressional members who have often clashed with their party’s leadership.

“We went there, and we all thought we're going to join arms and lock step with our Republican colleagues,” said state Sen. Rick Brattin, R-Harrisonville, referring to previous legislative sessions. “But unfortunately, we found that is not the case. We don't want the status quo. We want to advance liberty, freedom and the platform that we swore an oath to protect and defend.”

Brattin and other Missouri Freedom Caucus members say Republican leaders in the House and Senate haven’t pushed far enough for Republican priorities. They also decried the growth of the state budget, driven in part by an influx of money from the federal government.

“We're here because we heard your cry,” said Rep. Justin Sparks, R-Wildwood. “When I went down to Jefferson City with my freshman legislators, I was struck down — but not destroyed. I was a little depressed, because we realized it's worse than I thought. But there is hope. Hope is on the way.”

One of the people who is backing the Missouri Freedom Caucus with his campaign funds is U.S. Rep. Eric Burlison. The Battlefield Republican was a member of the Conservative Caucus before he was elected to represent a portion of southwest Missouri in Congress.

“The Bible says iron sharpens iron,” Burlison said. “And there's nothing like being around other conservatives who can point out errors in bills, errors in your own bills, errors in your voting record. ... That’s what is occurring today for me with the Freedom Caucus on the national level. And so I was extremely excited to see this group form.”

Sen. Bill Eigel, R-Weldon Spring, on the first day of the 2024 legislative session, Wednesday, Jan. 3, 2024, at the Missouri Capitol in Jefferson City, Mo.
Tristen Rouse
St. Louis Public Radio
State Sen. Bill Eigel, R-Weldon Spring, listens to discussion last week during the first day of the 2024 Missouri legislative session. Eigel was a key member of the now-defunct Conservative Caucus that clashed with the state's GOP leadership.

Can the caucus make an impact?

Since Republicans took control of the Missouri legislature in 2002, there has tended to be a faction of the GOP caucuses in the House and Senate that diverged from GOP leadership. Sometimes those groups made a significant impact, as was the case with a group lead by then-Sen. Jason Crowell in the early 2010s.

But the Conservative Caucus often faced roadblocks to getting what it wanted, especially after some Senate Republicans teamed with Senate Democrats to outflank the group. Burlison, a former member of the Conservative Caucus, said the success of the new caucus could depend on whether that dynamic continues.

“When you're standing up to leadership, you have to give them a choice,” Burlison said. “They have to choose to either go with the conservatives or to shun the conservatives and go with the Democrats. And sometimes, you can push that. And it depends on who's in leadership. But sadly in the Missouri Senate for the period of time that I was there, we had leadership that preferred to work with Democrats than they did with the conservatives.”

During the first day of the General Assembly’s session on Wednesday, several members of the Missouri Freedom Caucus spoke on the Senate floor about how they plan to be more scrupulous in examining legislation — especially so-called omnibus bills that contain scores of different provisions.

The Missouri State Senate Chamber on the first day of the 2024 legislative session, Wednesday, Jan. 3, 2024, at the Missouri Capitol in Jefferson City, Mo.
Tristen Rouse
St. Louis Public Radio
The Missouri Senate chamber last Wednesday, the first day of the 2024 legislative session in Jefferson City.

And the day after featured a heated exchange between Sen. Denny Hoskins, a Freedom Caucus member, and Sen. Mike Bernskoetter, a Jefferson City Republican who is not part of the group. Senate Majority Leader Cindy O’Laughlin, R-Shelbina, adjourned the Senate in the middle of that exchange.

Senate President Pro Tem Caleb Rowden said Friday that it was “pretty simplistic” to blame GOP leadership for the failure to pass measures like a ballot item making it more difficult to amend the state constitution or alterations to the state’s property tax system.

“The thing about the Senate that is frustrating to no end is that nothing is easy,” said Rowden, R-Columbia. “You're never going to find a day and you rarely find an issue where you can just put your head down and say, ‘It's my way or the highway and everything else be damned.’ It just doesn’t work.”

While he said there’s always concern that infighting is going to affect the flow of legislation, Rowden noted that it’s early in the session, so there’s plenty of time for things to change.

“Obviously, the first couple of days were interesting,” Rowden said. “But it's early enough that we still have plenty of opportunities to push forward things that we care about and push forward things that matter.”

Senate Minority Leader John Rizzo, D-Independence, said his caucus isn’t necessarily thrilled that his GOP colleagues are engaged in infighting.

“To see the Senate floor devolve into what it has these last four or five years is not enjoyable, regardless of what side of the aisle you sit on,” Rizzo said. “We came here to debate ideas. We came here to debate policy. That's the point of what we do.”

Former Sen. Bob Onder of St. Charles County said conservatives have influenced the trajectory of legislation when it comes to bills banning abortion, blocking gun regulations and stopping what they deem to be bad bills.

“I cannot tell you how many expansions of government the folks behind me here today stopped over the years I was in the Missouri Senate,” Onder said.

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.
Sarah Kellogg is a Missouri Statehouse and Politics Reporter for St. Louis Public Radio and other public radio stations across the state.