JEFFERSON CITY — Republicans control the Missouri Senate. But so far, they also have been part of the opposition, preventing votes on some legislation favored by Senate leaders while heavily outnumbered Democrats have opted to condemn but generally not to delay the GOP-backed bills.
That has meant the protracted policy and political fights that regularly surface in the state Senate generally have pitted Republican senators against fellow Republicans, with Democrats sometimes participating but not leading efforts to bog down the chamber and prevent votes on disfavored measures.
Instead, with just eight seats in the 34-member chamber, the Democrats essentially have been saving their political capital. And rather than block votes, Democrats have suggested changes while offering sometimes stinging commentary.
"You can't get up on every issue when you're in the minority," said Sen. Tim Green, D-St. Louis. "So you pick the ones you're most passionate about to use your abilities and the process."
Democrats this week likely will need to decide whether to start spending some of the political capital in their accounts.
Senate leaders said they planned to start debate Monday on legislation that would make Missouri a so-called "right-to-work" state by prohibiting workers from being forced to pay dues, fees or assessments to labor organizations.
Senate President Pro Tem Rob Mayer has said the proposal is important to him, and it is backed by the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Proponents say the legislation could help to make the state more attractive for manufacturing and other industries.
Nationwide, lawmakers in more than a dozen states are considering bills that would set "right-to-work" policies.
Critics of the Missouri legislation — which include labor unions and some businesses — question the potential economic development benefits. Democratic lawmakers also have voiced opposition and expressed concerns about the effect on wages and working conditions.
Sen. Ryan McKenna, who has spent more than a decade in the legislature, said the legislation could be the most important issue that he has considered. McKenna, D-Crystal City, said there is little middle ground in the debate because states either have a "right-to-work" policy or they do not.
"I'm going to talk as long as I need to," McKenna said.
He added: "I don't like to filibuster. I think eventually things ought to come to a vote, but this is the issue for me."
So far this year, the highest profile stumbling blocks in the state Senate have been erected by Republicans. For example, Sens. Jim Lembke, Brian Nieves and Rob Schaaf have prevented a vote on legislation that would allow Missouri to use federal money to offer additional unemployment benefits to some jobless Missourians.
The Missouri Senate does not have time limits on its floor debate nor does the chamber bar lawmakers from meandering off the immediate topic. That generally allows critics of legislation to stall and prevent a vote through a filibuster for as long as they can remain standing and speaking. It can mean hours of talking interspersed with policy arguments, personal anecdotes and the occasional reading of passages from economic textbooks and novels.
McKenna said he has selected two books — one about the history of organized labor in the U.S. and the other focused on the St. Louis Cardinals and the New York Yankees baseball teams — to use if necessary for his opposition to the union legislation.
Mayer, R-Dexter, said the measure is needed to help boost economic development in Missouri and to reduce unemployment, which was 9.4 percent in February according to statistics released Friday by the Missouri Department of Economic Development. Mayer said he does not expected to reach a vote the first time senators consider the legislation and knows there is opposition that includes both Republicans and Democrats.
"I understand where they're coming from, but as I've said all along, if we as a state want to continue to do what we've been doing and believe that we're going to get a different result in the way of job creation and economic development, I think we're sadly wrong," Mayer said. "So I have to move forward with this."
It is a debate that pits senators passionate about their positions on an issue that offers little room for compromise. And that could offer lawmakers plenty of time to enact the words of Scottish writer and theologian George Campbell that are emblazoned on the wall at the front of the Missouri Senate chamber.
"Free and fair discussion will ever be found the firmest friend to the truth."
Chris Blank has covered state government and politics for The Associated Press since 2005.