JEFFERSON CITY — Behind the abortion saga that dominated the closing hours of Missouri’s legislative session lies a Republican Party division that affected a number of issues. It’s the same division that’s been plaguing the party nationally: whether social or fiscal conservatism should dominate its agenda.
Gov. Matt Blunt seemed to personify that split on Friday, first watching a bill to further restrict abortions die for the year, then two hours later calling a special session to address the issue this fall.
The abortion restrictions died in the Senate under the threat of a filibuster by Democrats. Senate Majority Leader Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph, allowed the bill’s sponsor, Sen. John Loudon, R-St. Louis County, to troll for support, but in the end steered the Senate away from the measure.
Instead, the Senate spent the last three hours of the session debating seemingly uncontroversial bills. Senators, for example, decided to declare the North American bullfrog the state amphibian. The final hours were so bland that Capitol hallways, normally jammed with lobbyists on the last day, were nearly vacant as the 6 p.m. adjournment approached. The governor held his end-of-the-session news conference two hours early, before the fate of the anti-abortion bill had been determined.
The abortion bill started as a measure allowing lawsuits against people who take minors across state lines to get abortions without parental consent. It was expanded, however, to ban clinics affiliated with and operated by organizations involved in abortion services, to restrict abortion discussions in public schools and to require that doctors have privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of any location where they perform abortions.
The abortion bill’s failure despite majority support in both the House and Senate mirrored that of other socially conservative initiatives. A measure to ban stem-cell research died after a contentious Senate debate and a promise by Blunt to veto the legislation, and a diluted version of new regulations for sexually-oriented businesses had to be added to a separate bill.
By contrast, Blunt and the Senate leadership earlier in the session aggressively pursued Medicaid cuts, tort reform, a new school funding formula and business-friendly changes to the workers compensation system.
“They did a good job taking care of the business community, but they did a poor job of taking care of the pro-life community,” said Sam Lee of the lobbying group Campaign Life Missouri.
Senate President Pro Tem Michael Gibbons, R-St. Louis County, was less than enthusiastic about the special session, which will be held in September.
“If the governor wants to call us in to deal with the issue of transporting minors across state lines in defiance of parental wishes, then we will be there to do our best to accomplish that task,” he said.
Gibbons echoed the governor’s criticism of outside lobbying on abortion.
“The people outside in the halls thought they had control of the process, and they found out that individual thought and legislative will still controls the General Assembly,” he said.
Senate leaders’ decision to use a social issue rather than a business measure to flex their muscles to lobbyists frustrated efforts by the most conservative members to move their agenda. Loudon regretted pushing so hard on abortion restrictions, even with Republican control of the General Assembly.
“Hindsight is 20/20, but if I had to do it all over again, I probably wouldn’t have tried to get so much done in one year,” said Sen. John Loudon, R-St. Louis County.
Both Loudon and Sen. Matt Bartle, R-Lee’s Summit, said the failure to complete an abortion bill or to ban stem-cell research were significant disappointments.
Nonetheless, Sen. Jon Dolan, R-St. Charles, said Republicans landed historic successes.
“We had a tough fight on some aspects of stem cell, we got through the gun fix, there was a good pro-life bill, but given an understanding of reasonable time frames and differing philosophies, we still had a pretty good, socially conservative session,” he said.