Senator Holly Thompson Rehder's Legislative Column for March 10, 2023
Friday, March 10, 2023
When Debate Fails
Are you ready for some “inside baseball” discussion about the political process? I hope so, because I feel I need to explain what’s going on in Jefferson City, and why we haven’t been able to bring an issue that’s important to me, and a lot of Missourians, to a vote. This week, I’d like to tell you about the Senate filibuster. Specifically, I want to talk about what’s keeping us from passing Senate Bill 49.
Also known as the “Save Adolescents from Experimentation Act,” or SAFE for short, SB 49 would prevent doctors from providing gender transition procedures, such as puberty blockers, hormone treatments or surgery to minor children struggling with gender dysphoria. If adults want to undergo gender transition procedures, that’s their business, but I don’t believe doctors should be trying to change children’s gender. This view is widely shared by my colleagues in the majority party of the Missouri Senate. In fact, I imagine a vote on SB 49 would follow strict party lines, with all of the members of the majority voting in favor.
So, if the majority holds a 24-10 advantage in the Senate, why don’t we cast our votes and pass the bill? The answer is the filibuster, and what it takes to end one.
For those not familiar with Senate procedures, a filibuster occurs when legislators block a vote by talking. You see, one of the ways the Senate differs from the House of Representatives is its tradition of free and open debate. In fact, it’s engraved on the wall of the Senate chamber: “Free and fair discussion is the firmest friend of truth.” The House of Representatives imposes time limits on debate. The Senate does not. In the Senate, we cannot vote on a bill until every senator has said all they want to say. That is a part of the legislative rules we have to abide by.
Unlike the U.S. Senate, where members can just declare a filibuster and go home, Missouri senators actually have to stand and talk. They don’t have to talk about the bill, but they do have to talk. And talk. And talk. That’s what happened this week. Senate Bill 49 was brought up for perfection in the chamber and opponents of the bill started talking. They talked for the better part of two days and showed no sign of letting up. Closed-door negotiations aimed at reaching a compromise and ending the filibuster were going nowhere. As determined as we were/are to pass this bill, the minority party is equally determined to stop it. So, we are currently at an impasse.
To be clear, it is possible to end a filibuster through a parliamentary procedure known as a “PQ.” The name comes from the motion to “call the previous question.” When this motion prevails, discussion ends and a vote is taken. It happens all the time in the House of Representatives, but it’s extremely rare in the Senate. This is my third year in the Senate, and in that time a PQ has happened exactly never. Not once. It’s been described as the nuclear option. The reason it is a “nuclear option” is because once it happens, all bets are off. Nothing else is going to pass because the party that got PQ’d will filibuster every bill, and every motion, that comes up afterward. Each bill has many motions before it is complete. Filibustering every single motion effectively shuts down the Senate.
That’s a problem, especially at this point in the legislative session. We’ve reached the half-way mark in the 2023 session. When we come back on March 20, we’ll begin turning our attention to the budget. We’ve also got quite a few issues we need to address yet – our distressed and overwhelmed foster care system, crime and further tax relief among them – but passing the budget is our main responsibility. In fact, according to the Missouri Constitution, the Legislature is only required to do one thing, and that’s pass a balanced budget. If we blow up the Senate now with a PQ, there’s a good chance we won’t be able to pass the budget.
Prior to this week, the Senate was working really well. The squabbling within the majority party seen in previous years has eased, and we’ve actually been working well with the minority party. I hope we can build on that good will and find a way to pass the SAFE Act, along with my Senate Bill 39, the “Save Women’s Sports Act,” without resorting to a PQ. If that doesn’t happen, I know the majority party is committed to passing legislation to protect kids, no matter the cost. If it takes blowing up the Senate to do it, we will. We just don’t want to do that unless and until there’s no other choice.
I always appreciate hearing your comments, opinions and concerns. Please feel free to contact me in Jefferson City at (573) 751-2459. You may write me at Holly Thompson Rehder, Missouri Senate, State Capitol, Rm 433, Jefferson City, MO 65101, send an email to Holly.Rehder@senate.mo.gov or visit www.senate.mo.gov/Rehder.