For almost a half hour Thursday afternoon, the Missouri Capitol hallways echoed with the familiar tones and gently stated voice calling state senators to the floor:
“The absence of a quorum has been noted.”
Inside the chamber, Sen. Mike Moon, R-Ash Grove, waited. His top priority bill, to ban transgender youth from participating on sports teams that match the gender they identify with, was finally up for a vote.
Moon was trying to face down a Democratic filibuster. He needed enough of his fellow Republicans to return to keep the Senate in session as he tried to outlast opponents.
They didn’t show.
Only 12 of the 34 members were present or returned after Senate Minority Leader John Rizzo initiated the quorum call. Moon needed 18.
Without a quorum, and unable to continue to do business, Senate Majority Leader Caleb Rowden called for adjournment until Monday afternoon.
Outwardly calm but angry at the result, Moon said he will review the rules to determine if the members present had the power to adjourn.
“So I’m gonna seek out further information, because if that’s the case, we’ve been duped, and that shouldn’t happen,” Moon said at the conservative caucus press conference following Thursday’s session. “I should have been wiser. If I’m right, you can guarantee it won’t happen again.”
And so went another skirmish in the long-running factional war that has split GOP ranks and turned the state Senate into a three-party body in all but name. There are no signs the rancor will abate with two weeks remaining in the session followed by a 10-week run to the August primary elections.
The challenge for Senate leadership will be to get through the final two weeks with as few of the angry outbursts or standoffs over decorum as possible while at least achieving the one thing lawmakers must do each year: Pass a budget paying for state government operations.
Democrats have taken advantage of the split, leveraging their votes to get bills passed even when a majority of Republicans are opposed.
There are 24 Senate Republicans – 17 who are generally aligned with leadership and seven in the conservative caucus. There are only 10 Democrats.
While some senators had left the building by the time of last Thursday’s quorum call, including at least one member of the conservative caucus, enough remained that a quorum could have been achieved if they had simply walked into the Senate chamber.
Rizzo said afterward that he told Democrats to ignore the quorum call.
“We felt like they didn’t have enough people, Rizzo said Thursday, “and they have a supermajority and it’s not our job to get, you know, quorums for what I would consider a bill that’s pretty hate-filled.”
Democrats cannot keep a quorum from being achieved. If Democrats would boycott sessions, as they have in some states where they are the minority, business could go on.
But they have more than enough members to maintain a filibuster indefinitely. The conservative caucus, with its smaller numbers, has shown that.
There were several currents that worked against Moon’s bill.
The late hour on Thursday meant that some lawmakers had already left town to return to their districts. Rowden said at the Republican leadership press conference that he knew of four or five Republicans who had to leave for events or family matters, and some others may have left without his knowledge.
He had no choice but to adjourn.
“If you don’t have a quorum, you don’t have a quorum,” Rowden said. “There’s no sense making people just stand around.”
Next, Moon’s bill is one of the most controversial before the legislature, and not every Republican supports it.
“We wanted to make sure and facilitate an opportunity for the debate to be had,” Rowden said. “Going from point A to point B, a debate and getting to a place where you can functionally get a bill of that size across the finish line, that’s a pretty monumental task for sure.”
Moon is a candidate for Congress from the 7th District in southwest Missouri, with another member of the conservative caucus, Sen. Eric Burlison, R-Springfield, also in the race. Some surmised that a few of the absences Thursday could have been because fellow Republicans want to deny Moon a legislative achievement to boast about in the primary.
Democrats see it as purely an election issue.
For most of two hours, Moon listened while Sen. Greg Razer, D-Kansas City, denounced the measure as a hateful attack on youth borne in a cynical play for votes.
“The people that invented this new problem, quote unquote, sweeping the nation, have admitted, stop focusing on CRT, this polls better for the midterms,” he said. “We are using kids as a midterm election issue.”
Defeat of Moon’s bill is also likely to be one more issue highlighted in this year’s Republican primaries, as the conservative caucus works to increase its numbers. There are 17 Senate seats, 14 held by Republicans, on this year’s ballot.
There are six open seats, all with primaries, and six where Republican incumbents face primary challengers. Only two current members of the conservative caucus are leaving office.
With enough primary victories, the conservative caucus could become the dominant faction in the Missouri Senate. That’s the goal for Sen. Bill Eigel, R-Weldon Spring.
“I am going to be engaged with a lot of the candidates in the open seat primaries,” Eigel said.
One of the unwritten rules of the Senate is that members do not campaign against the re-election of their colleagues. Eigel said he will observe that courtesy but expects strong challenges in several races.
“Quite frankly,” he said, “the discussions are going to have to be about the kinds of things we are talking about on the floor but my focus is on the open seat primaries.”