While the news from Congress in Washington has been dominated by what seems to be near-partisan gridlock, here in Missouri's statehouse there's been a bit of a return to bipartisanship.For example, at the start of the year, the Republican House speaker named three Democrats to chair committees. It is the largest number of minority party members to chair House committees in more than half a century; it might be the largest number in the state's history. Just a few weeks ago, the Republican Senate president pro tem credited the Senate's Democratic leader with helping convince him to not immediately shut down the special session to give the China hub bill another chance. The easing of partisan tensions began in the Senate a few years ago when a group of three Republican senators worked out an agreement with Democrats to avoid bitter, partisan filibusters and the resulting Republican motions to shut off debate. The current Republican leader, Tom Dempsey, was one of those three who committed to support not shutting off debate if Democrats were willing to negotiate. It ended a period that began in the early 1990s of ugly filibusters and partisan division in the Senate. It got so ugly that even a few staff complained privately that it had become an unpleasant place to work. The dominance of partisan bickering represented a historic change for the Senate. The House has been a partisan body for years, with frequent party-line votes and the majority party regularly using its powers to shut off debate by the minority party. A House speaker pro tem decades ago, Pat Hickey, used to say there was no purpose in having power unless you used it. But the Senate had been different. Whether a member was Republican or Democrat was less important than seniority, skills and geography. Republican Dick Webster often was cited as one of the more influential members in a body that was dominated by Democrats. Republicans and Democrats regularly socialized together. In his second term, Republican Gov. Kit Bond joined in for an evening of drinking one night a week during the legislative sessions -- usually in a Democratic senator's fourth-floor office. Back in those days, party affiliation did not so clearly define ideology. Some of the most strident conservatives were Democrats. It was the Democratic president pro tem Earl Blackwell who led the fight against the Democratic governor's efforts to raise the income tax. Leading Senate opponents to ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment included the Judiciary Committee chairman and one of the chamber's few female senators, Mary Gant -- both Democrats. The decline of that conservative voice within the Democratic caucus, along with the increasing ideological purity among Republicans, are among the factors that contributed to the heightened partisanship that emerged in the 1990s. At one point, I coined the phrase "I-70 Democrats" because every Senate member lived just a few miles from the interstate in St. Louis, Kansas City or Columbia and represented an urban-oriented, liberal philosophy. The rural, conservative heart of Democratic caucus that had dominated the Senate was nearly extinct. They're not completely gone (the current Senate Democratic leader Victor Callahan is more conservative on some issues than many Republican members), but they're a mere shadow of what they once had been. Politics played a role as Republicans saw they had a real chance to capture control of the General Assembly and sought to define party differences for the voters. And, of course, legislative term limits have been a huge factor. Term limits wiped out a number of long-term rural, conservative Democrats. Now with the frequent turnover from term limits, you don't see the type of long-term friendships that had developed among members across party lines. I've heard a couple of explanations for the more recent return to a more bipartisan and collegial atmosphere. Some argue that with their diminished numbers, Democrats realize they have to "get along" to have a significant role in crafting legislation rather than being obstructions. At one time, Senate Democratic Leader Ken Jacob openly described his role as stalling what he saw as a conservative agenda being pushed by the GOP majority. Since Jacob, however, Senate Democratic leaders have taken a much more collaborative role with the majority Republican leadership. Among those around in the earlier years, I sensed a clear desire to avoid returning to those nasty partisan fights that had created such an uncomfortable environment in the Senate. But next year will be an election year, and that can present some irresistible temptations, if not demands, for playing politics in the legislature. As always, let me know (at firstname.lastname@example.org) if you have any comments. If you would like your comments, or a portion of them, included in a future column, let me know and be sure to include your full name in your email. Past columns are available at http://www.mdn.org/mpacol. [ http://www.mdn.org/mpacol ]
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