JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri Senate President Pro Tem Rob Mayer began the 2011 legislative session as the new chief of the largest — and perhaps most politically divided — Republican caucus since at least the Civil War era. He pledged to try to unite Republicans to advance a conservative agenda.
In the middle of the night last week — as sleep-deprived senators vented their frustrations in a closed-door Republican caucus — it became apparent that Mayer had not united the 26 Republican senators. Not unless you count the fact that they were largely united against his attempts at compromise.
In a session where senators of both parties have compromised to pass several significant bills, a filibuster from four first-term Republican senators upset about federal spending highlighted the fact that Republican senators remains deeply divided — and can be difficult to lead.
Those four senators — Will Kraus of Lee's Summit, Jim Lembke of St. Louis, Brian Nieves of Washington and Rob Schaaf of St. Joseph — held up passage of a bill in March reauthorizing the ability of unemployed Missouri workers to receive long-term, federally funded jobless benefits. They finally relented from their filibuster in April, after negotiating a deal with Mayer and Senate Majority Leader Tom Dempsey.
Under the terms of that agreement, the filibustering senators allowed a vote on the bill renewing federally funded jobless benefits in exchange for an amendment reducing state-funded benefits and a pledge from Mayer and Dempsey to help identify up to $250 million of cuts to federal stimulus programs in Missouri.
But Mayer and Dempsey promised more than they could deliver. It turned out that federal stimulus money was more complex than either the Senate leaders or the filibustering senators realized when than rashly promised to try to eliminate almost half of it. And many rank-and-file Republican senators were unwilling to follow their lead.
Mayer told The Associated Press that as the Senate's top-ranking official, he believed he was negotiating on behalf of the full chamber — or at least the Republican caucus — when he struck a deal with the four filibustering senators to sit down on the unemployment bill in exchange his help in cutting stimulus spending.
The four filibustering senators also thought that was the case. They expected that if Mayer and Dempsey would help pinpoint the stimulus cuts, a majority of senators would follow their lead and ratify those cuts.
Dempsey told the AP that he believed Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Kurt Schaefer of Columbia was on board with the deal.
"But that turned out to be not the case," Dempsey said while reconstructing how the agreement fell apart.
Said Schaefer: "I wasn't part of that agreement. I don't know what the details of that discussion were, because I wasn't there in the room."
Without the support of the Senate's lead budget writer, it became much more difficult to cut the stimulus money.
It also became clear that much of the $581 million originally included in the stimulus reauthorization bill was already committed to particular projects. Schaefer's committee removed about $114 million from the 2012 stimulus bill, but that was largely because it already was being spent in 2011. Of the remaining money in the reauthorization bill, just $41 million was identified as not yet under contract, and even much of that had been pledged to particular projects.
Mayer proposed to eliminate that $41 million, and the filibustering senators said they would accept that as a fulfillment of their agreement — even though it was substantially less than they originally sought. Yet Schaefer refused to go along with the cut. So the four senators renewed their filibuster.
That's when the frustrations became particularly intense in that middle-of-the-night Republican meeting. Ultimately, a second closed-door GOP meeting was called as the night neared morning, and the four senators agreed to end their filibuster in exchange for $14 million in cuts to the stimulus reauthorization bill.
"I tried to broker a compromise between the parties, and that wasn't acceptable, and so we went a different way as a caucus," Mayer said. "In the end, the caucus was unwilling to make that big of a reduction."
Dempsey said the fizzled deal provided a valuable lesson in Senate leadership. In retrospect, Dempsey said, he probably should have convened a Republican caucus before striking the April agreement with the filibustering senators to ensure that the stimulus cuts had enough support.
The filibustering senators said they also learned a valuable lesson that may make them more hesitant to reach future agreements.
"The hard part is knowing that you're going to get what's being offered," Schaaf said. "That it can actually be delivered. That it will be delivered."