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50-hour filibuster forces more negotiations on GOP-backed initiative petition changes

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50-hour filibuster forces more negotiations on GOP-backed initiative petition changes

May 15, 2024 | 7:48 pm ET
By Anna Spoerre Rudi Keller Jason Hancock
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50-hour filibuster forces more negotiations on GOP-backed initiative petition changes
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State Sen. Rick Brattin, a member of the Freedom Caucus, shouts at his Republican colleagues Wednesday during debate on initiative petition changes (Anna Spoerre/Missouri Independent).

A 50-hour Democratic filibuster forced the Senate’s divided GOP majority to finally yield Wednesday evening, stalling a vote on a bill seeking to make it more difficult to amend Missouri’s constitution.

Democrats have blocked all action in the Senate since Monday afternoon, demanding that the legislation be stripped of “ballot candy” that would bar non-citizens from voting and ban foreign entities from contributing to or sponsoring constitutional amendments, both of which are already illegal. 

The Senate passed the bill without ballot candy in February. The House added it back last month.

Senate Minority Leader John Rizzo, an Independence Democrat, on Tuesday said the situation presented an existential crisis for the Senate, as Republicans openly considered a rarely-used maneuver to kill the filibuster and force a vote on the bill. 

“Are the bullies going to win?” Rizzo asked. “Or is the rest of the Senate finally going to stand up for itself and say ‘no more.’” 

He got an answer just before 4:30 p.m. Wednesday, when state Sen. Mary Elizabeth Coleman, an Arnold Republican and the bill’s sponsor, surprised many of her colleagues by asking that the Senate send the bill back to the House for more negotiations on whether to include “ballot candy.” 

Republicans simply didn’t have the votes to kill the filibuster, she said, and Democrats showed no signs of relenting before session ends at 6 p.m. Friday. 

“These policies are too important to play political games with,” Coleman said, adding that going to conference to work out a deal with the House was the only way to keep it alive in the face of unrelenting Democratic opposition. “In a perfect world, we would not be between a rock and a hard place.”

50-hour filibuster forces more negotiations on GOP-backed initiative petition changes
Republican state Sens. Nick Schroer and Mike Moon look on as Republican state Sen. Mary Elizabeth Coleman requests that her initiative petition bill be sent back to the House on Wednesday (Anna Spoerre/Missouri Independent).

The sudden change in tactics was not well-taken by members of the Freedom Caucus, who argued sending the bill back to the House with only two days left before adjournment puts its chances at risk. 

Tim Jones, a former Missouri House speaker and current director of the state’s Freedom Caucus, wrote on social media Thursday evening that Coleman “effectively killed her own bill today.”

Ultimately, the Senate voted 18-13 to send the bill to conference, with nine Republicans joining nine Democrats in support of the move.

If the bill passes, Missourians would have the opportunity to vote later this year on whether or not to require constitutional amendments be approved by both a majority of votes statewide and a majority of votes in five of the state’s eight congressional districts. 

Right now, amendments pass with a simple majority.

A possible vote on abortion in November is a catalyst behind the battle over the bill, as a campaign to legalize abortion up to the point of fetal viability is on the path to the statewide ballot. 

Republicans have said that without raising the threshold for changing the state’s constitution, a constitutional right to abortion will likely become the law of the land in Missouri. 

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State Sen. Rick Brattin, a Harrisonville Republican and a member of the Freedom Caucus, tipped his hat to the Democrats’ “wherewithal” before scorning some of his Republican colleagues. 

“Unfortunately, this Republican Party has no backbone to fight for what is right for life,” he shouted from the Senate floor. “ … They will have the blood of the innocent on their heads. Shame on this party.”

Coleman’s move also came as a surprise to state Rep. Alex Riley, a Republican from Springfield who sponsored the initiative petition bill in the House. 

“We’re going to have to have some conversations tonight to figure out what exactly it is they have in mind,” he said. “We will be having many conversations over the next few hours.”

House Speaker Dean Plocher said he was pleased to see the impasse broken, adding that the House is ready to work on a final version that can be passed. 

He didn’t promise to remove the “ballot candy” added by the House. 

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Asked if Coleman made a tactical mistake in telling the House to restore the items removed during the first Democratic filibuster, Plocher said he hadn’t spoken to Coleman and declined to speculate on whether the outcome would have been different had she not.

Democrats left the Senate Wednesday evening hopeful they will ultimately get their way.

“This body by and large is a staunch supporter of democracy. That doesn’t just go for one side of the aisle. That goes for both sides,” Rizzo said. “This is not protecting the ballot for Democrats or Republicans or one issue or the other issue that you might like or dislike. This protects the ballot box for Republicans and Democrats alike for the future.”

Rizzo maintained that removing the ballot candy is still the only way Democrats will allow the bill to get through the Senate if it returns from the House. 

“If you haven’t figured that out in the last three or four days, I don’t know where you’ve been,” Rizzo said, adding: “Hopefully sleeping.” 

50-hour filibuster forces more negotiations on GOP-backed initiative petition changes
Republican state Sen. Bill Eigel encourages his colleagues to vote against a motion filed by Republican state Sen. Mary Elizabeth Coleman on Wednesday (Anna Spoerre/Missouri Independent).

As the Senate prepared to vote, state Sen. Bill Eigel, a Weldon Spring Republican and Freedom Caucus member, warned his colleagues not to be optimistic that the Senate will come back Thursday and pass other bills waiting in the pipeline.

“If the hope is that this process is going to somehow lead us back to a place of engaging more legislation besides this, I’m gonna say this very clearly,” he said. “Don’t get your hopes up.”