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Unresolved abortion disputes highlights divide in Republican majority

May 14, 2005
By: Chris Blank
State Capital Bureau

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 throughout the session.

It's the same division that's plagued the party nationally -- whether social and fiscal conservatism should dominate the party's agenda.

The governor seemed to personify that split during thee closing hours of the session -- first an abortion-restriction bill nearly dead for the year, then two hours later calling a special session to address the issue again this fall.

It was in the Senate that the package of abortion restrictions died from a threatened filibuster by Democrats that Republicans were not willing to challenge.

While permitting the measure's sponsor to troll for support to end a filibuster and force the issue to a vote, Senate Majority Leader Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph, kept the Senate away from abortion on the session's final day.

Instead, the Senate spent the final three hours of the session debating noncontroversial bills, including a half hour debate to make the 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 during the closing hours before the 6 p.m. adjournment. The governor thought things would wrap up so early, he held his end-of-the-session news conference two hours early -- even before the fate anti-abortion bill had been determined.

The bill started as a measure to permit civil penalties for people who take minors across state lines without parental consent in order to have an abortion. It was prompted by services that offer to transport Missouri minors to Illinois for abortions in a state that does require parental consent.

The bill, however, was expanded to ban clinics affiliated and operated by organizations involved in abortion services, restricted abortion discussions in public schools and would have effectively closed the Springfield abortion clinic by requiring all abortions be performed by a doctor within 30 miles of a hospital at which he or she has privileges.

The governor also took a less than active role, not once appearing in the legislative chambers for a final push on the abortion bill -- as had just days earlier on the school funding issue.

In contrast, the Senate leadership aggressively pursued measures to reduce the worker's compensation and Medicaid systems while completing several significant changes to the civil liability system at the behest of the business community.

But for social issues, a measure to ban stem cell research died after a contentious Senate floor debate following Blunt's promise to veto such legislation, a diluted version of a measure to regulate sexually-oriented businesses had to be added to a separate bill and despite significant majorities in the legislature and Republican governor, no abortion bills were passed.

"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 anti-abortion lobbying group Campaign Life Missouri.

Despite facing sharp criticism from similar groups, Senate Pro Tem Michael Gibbons, R-St. Louis County, sounded less than enthusiastic at the prospect of coming back in the fall.

"If the governor wants to call us in to deal with the issue of transporting minors across stateliness in defiance of parental wishes, then we will be there to do our best to accomplish that task," he said.

While not exactly endorsing the governor's special session call, the top Senate leader did echo 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.

The decision for Senate leadership to use a social rather than a business issue to flex their muscles to lobbyists frustrated efforts by the most conservative members to move their agenda. The sponsor of the abortion bill said, given the opportunity to start over, he would not have pushed as hard even with Republican control.

"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.

Social conservatives such as Loudon or Sen. Matt Bartle, R-Lee's Summit, said the failure to complete an abortion bill or ban stem cell research were significant disappointments.

Speaking about an omnibus crime bill that had been stripped of language to regulate sexually-oriented businesses, Bartle said he was "short of a pint of blood over this."

Bartle, however, did secure passage of the more limited porn-shop restrictions.

Nonetheless, Sen. Jon Dolan, R-St. Charles, who had pushed for the removal of loss limits and an increase to gross receipts taxes on gambling -- two of the issues most certain to generate a conflict with the most socially conservative Republicans -- said the Republicans had 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.

For the very start of the legislative session, there had been signs that the Senate would take a more moderate approach than the House. Two years earlier, the man Senate Republicans picked as their caucus leader was one of three Senate Republicans to vote for a sales tax increase. And this session, he argued for a gambling tax increase for education.

While division within the majority party in the Senate was less visible, fighting between the more conservative House and the more moderate Senate erupted over a bill to permit the primary enforcement of seat belts. Dolan, one of the measure's biggest supporters lashed out against House Republicans, including Speaker Rod Jetton, R-Marble Hill, twice during the week's final session.

Dolan said House Republicans had "refused to truthfully or effectively deal with the issue" before questioning the ability of some of the House Republicans to govern, especially one of the leaders of the opposition Rep. Bryan Yates, R-Lee's Summit.

Blunt, who stated in a news release he believed Republican control of the process should lead to the passage of further restrictions on abortion, had also promised to call for a special session if the school foundation formula had not passed.