ANALYSIS: Missouri bipartisanship showing first cracks

Sunday, January 18, 2009 | 5:56 p.m. CST

JEFFERSON CITY — They've dined together, partied together, stood side-by-side for the cameras and jointly proposed job-creation policies.

Bipartisanship is in vogue at the Missouri Capitol among new Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon and the Republican legislative leaders.

The question is whether the fad will fade. History suggests it will. Already, a few cracks are showing.

The bipartisan mood peaked when Nixon proclaimed it "A New Day for Missouri" as he was sworn into office a week ago.

"But this new day will not be possible unless there is a new tone in Jefferson City," Nixon said. "Because for too many years, politics and partisanship have stood in the way of progress. And the people of Missouri are tired of it."

Indeed, there have been numerous noteworthy indications of a new spirit of cooperation among Republicans and Democrats.

  • Two days after his Nov. 4 election, Nixon stood side-by-side with Republican and Democratic legislative leaders for a news conference pledging to talk and work together.
  • In mid-December, new Senate Majority Leader Kevin Engler, a Republican, hosted a bipartisan party at his Farmington home for statewide officials, lawmakers and local residents.
  • Three days before Christmas, Nixon announced a job creation plan with written statements of support from the Republican and Democratic leaders in both the House and Senate.
  • When the legislative session began Jan. 7, Republicans and Democrats alike pledged cooperation.
  • For his inauguration, Nixon reinstated a recently broken tradition of having the Senate president pro tem preside over the ceremonies — even though Nixon is a Democrat and Sen. Charlie Shields, of St. Joseph, is a Republican.
  • On Friday, Nixon traveled to Joplin to share breakfast with business leaders and two of the Legislatures' most powerful Republicans, House Speaker Ron Richard and Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Gary Nodler, both of Joplin. The trio declared their intent to work together.

It is not unusual for state officials to proclaim a new era of bipartisanship as work begins each January at the Capitol.

Consider this flashback:

"I am extending a hand. Let's leave last year's fights to last year," Republican House Speaker Catherine Hanaway declared in January 2004, a year after some bitter budget battles with Democratic Gov. Bob Holden.

Three weeks later, as Holden repeatedly criticized Republican lawmakers in his State of the State address, Republican Rep. Rod Jetton interrupted by shouting at Holden. It was a highly unusual break from decorum that came to symbolize a highly partisan legislative session. The next year, Jetton became House speaker and also urged bipartisanship.

This time, however, the early gestures of bipartisanship have seemed more sincere to some political watchers.

"Whether it holds up when they get into the nitty-gritty and heavy lifting is still an open question," said Randy Hagerty, chairman of the political science department at Truman State University in Kirksville. "But at least they go into this with a willingness to compromise — much more so than they have for the last few terms of governors."

The bipartisanship, however, has not been universal.

Although he included Republican legislative leaders in his job creation plans, Nixon did not brief Republican Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder about plans to use money from the Missouri Development Finance Board for a small-business loan program. That was a bit of an affront to Kinder, who is chairman of the finance board.

Nixon's chief of staff finally met Friday with Kinder's chief of staff about the small business loan proposal — three days after Nixon issued an executive order to develop the loan plan and more than three weeks after Nixon first outlined it.

Bipartisanship also wavered in the House on Thursday when members adopted their rules for the 2009 session. The first proposed amendment came from Democratic Rep. John Burnett, of Kansas City, who sought to strip the Republican majority leader of his power to decide when bills get brought up for debate. The amendment failed on a generally party-line vote.

The House rules ultimately were adopted, but not with a unanimous show of bipartisan support. Barely one-quarter of Democrats joined Republicans in voting for them.

On Friday, House Democrats complained that Republican leaders had blocked several Democratic lawmakers from being appointed to the committees of their choosing, including freshman Rep. Jason Kander, D-Kansas City, who is a Nixon ally.

If Missouri's new bipartisanship is cracking, is that bad?

There is debate among political scientists about whether bipartisanship is better than partisanship. With cooperation, there is a greater chance of enacting public policy. But when parties clash over ideology, voters have more clearly defined choices among candidates.

Generally speaking, political scientist Mark Rushefsky leans toward bipartisanship.

This year, "I'm cautiously optimistic," said Rushefsky, of Missouri State University in Springfield. "It may be the problems facing the state are sufficient enough that Democrats and Republicans will work together. That would be nice."

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