State senate's night sessions becoming more common

Monday, March 19, 2007

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Senate Majority Leader Charlie Shields calls them magical moments -- those occasions when strong-willed senators finally buckle under exhaustion and start talking of compromise.

Last week, that magical moment occurred at 11 a.m. one day, when Republican and Democrats finally agreed to negotiate after enduring a 15-hour, all-night Democratic filibuster against Gov. Matt Blunt's college construction plan that had left people a little loopy and droopy.

Then POOF! The magic was gone.

Democrats rejected the tentatively negotiated deal. Republicans got angry and set the bill aside. And everyone went home.

And that caused one to wonder: What was the point of the all-night Senate session?

The Senate doesn't keep a record book. But in recent memory, there has never been such a session -- where senators convened after dinner, worked straight through bedtime, past the next day's breakfast and nearly to lunch.

Though still unusual, the late-night sessions are becoming more common under Shields' stewardship. As majority leader, it's his call when to start and stop, and which bills to debate.

Freshly in charge in February 2005, Shields kept the Senate in session from one Monday afternoon until 6:30 a.m. Tuesday to overcome a filibuster and pass legislation changing the name of Southwest Missouri State University to Missouri State University.

Until last week, the 2005 all-nighter was the Senate's longest in at least a couple decades, based on the collective memories of some Capitol observers and workers. (According to Capitol lore, some senators slept on cots in the halls in 1970 while Senate President Pro Tem Earl Blackwell, D-Hillsboro, led a filibuster against Gov. Warren Hearnes' proposed income tax increase.)

The recent all-nighter almost had some people yearning for a simple 3:30 a.m. finish, as was the case Jan. 19, when Shields held the Senate in session to break a 17-hour filibuster led by Sen. Matt Bartle, R-Lee's Summit, against an appointee to the University of Missouri Board of Curators.

And that made last May's 2 a.m. quitting time look downright easy. That's when Shields worked senators early into the morning on the last day of session before Republicans used a rare procedural move to halt a Democratic filibuster and pass a voter photo identification bill (which later was struck down in court).

Although uncommon, it wasn't unheard of under previous Senate majority leaders for the chamber to stay in session until 2 a.m. when there was a particularly sticky topic. But Shields has a tendency to try to push things a little longer.

"At some point you hit these magical moments," explains Shields, R-St. Joseph. "When people start talking, things get worked out. But sometimes, it take a while to get people talking."

Shields believes he made a mistake last year by letting senators leave after midnight when it appeared they had reached a compromise after two days of filibustering on a bill dealing with public construction projects and union contractors.

Shields allowed time for opposing interest groups to put their negotiated points into actual legislative language and review it. The deal fell apart over the weekend, and the bill never was brought back for debate in 2006.

"So," Shields explained in a recent interview, now "I try to drive them toward the ultimate result," which is passing the legislation.

Yet that didn't work out on last week's higher education bill, which contains Blunt's $350 million plan to take money from the Missouri Higher Education Loan Authority for dozens of construction projects at public colleges and universities.

After negotiations fell apart, lawmakers departed Thursday for a 10-day spring break.

Senate Minority Leader Maida Coleman, D-St. Louis, declared as she prepared to leave: "I believe it's one of the most effective filibusters we've had."

From her perspective, it was Democrats who caused Republicans to buckle.

"It's after Democrats proved that we can defeat them that they decided they'd better come and have some discussions," she said.

Unlike on the 2006 contractors bill, Shields vows this won't be the end for Blunt's priority construction projects. More negotiations and revisions are possible. And the bill will come back for more debate, Shields vowed as he prepared to leave town.

But perhaps there is another lesson from the 2006 contractors bill.

Instead of trying to force that bill to passage last year, Senate leaders allowed time for more talks among union and nonunion contractor groups. By the start of the 2007 session, they had reached a true compromise, and the legislation was the first non-budget bill sent to the governor's desk this year.

So is another year of negotiations a possibility for Blunt's college construction bill?

Not likely, say Shields and Senate President Pro Tem Michael Gibbons, R-Kirkwood.

"It's a priority for us, and we're going to find a way to get the job done," Gibbons said.

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