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Capitol Perspectives: Abortion Politics

Phill Brooks
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(Credit: Thinkstock)

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Election Returns

One of the major changes in Missouri’s legislature in recent years has been the decline of abortion politics.

That is not to say that lawmakers have reached a consensus on abortion rights. Just the opposite. Abortion remains an issue of deep and sometimes emotional divide within Missouri’s General Assembly.

Rather, abortion no longer is a dominating factor that affects a variety of issues that would seem to have little relationship to abortion itself. There still is an occasional abortion-restriction bill that generates debate, but it no longer is a dominating component in the legislature.

There are several factors that I think have contributed to the decline of abortion as a defining component of the General Assembly’s work.

One has been the emergence of the Republican majority in the legislature.

Back when Democrats were in control, abortion often was used as a means to carve out Democratic votes for Republican issues.

Republicans were and remain solidly resistant to abortion rights. While Democrats tend to be supportive of abortion rights, there are some with different positions, particularly among Catholic Democrats.

In the final years of Democratic control of the legislature, there were enough anti-abortion Democrats that when they joined Republicans, they constituted a controlling majority.

I watched with fascination as bill after bill would slip away from Democratic control simply by some Republican sticking in an anti-abortion amendment.

Now, Republicans do not need to use that tactic. They’ve captured an overwhelming majority of legislative seats.

Another factor has been the more collaborative relationship that has developed between the two party leaders in the Senate.

In the first years after the GOP took control of the Senate, the Democratic leader, Ken Jacob, launched almost continuing filibusters to slow down the Republican agenda.

Anything related to abortion rights restrictions was guaranteed to explode in to hours, if not days of filibuster — even if the bill would have little impact or was guaranteed to be wiped out by a gubernatorial veto.

But now, recent Democratic leaders are more focused on maintaining a working and friendly partnership with Republicans.

Last year, for example, Sen. Jolie Justus, D-Kansas City — who became Democratic leader this year — quietly sat down and did not filibuster a bill designed to allow insurance to exclude coverage for abortion and contraception. She explained that the measure ultimately would have no effect and thus did not warrant a filibuster. Besides, the governor ultimately vetoed the measure.

The change in the governor’s office has been a factor too.

Back in the early 1990s, Gov. Mel Carnahan seemed almost deliberately trying to pick an abortion-rights fight with the legislature.

Planned Parenthood had been one of his biggest campaign contributors. After his election, Carnahan made state funding for family planning a major budget issue.

But anti-abortion forces in the legislature insisted that Planned Parenthood be banned from getting any of that family planning money because some of its clinics provided abortion services.

Carnahan would not back down. The resulting legislative gridlock forced a unique budget special session after lawmakers failed to pass the state’s health budget.

Carnahan was so eager and passionate about the issue that he agreed to an unprecedented public debate in a conference room of a nearby hotel with the chief lobbyist for the Missouri Catholic Conference.

Finally, there has been a change with the Missouri Catholic Conference.

That Missouri Catholic Conference director who debated Carnahan was Larry Weber. He was an aggressive and extremely effective lobbyist who had a gift in putting together legislative coalitions.

Weber, a deacon, had been a practicing attorney. He came to the Catholic Conference with a wealth of experience dealing the legislature. He had been a staff attorney for the Senate and worked for both the state attorney general and the state Supreme Court.

He had an ability to influence the legislative process at a level I’ve seen in few lobbyists.

“God’s Lobbyist” was the headline one of my reporters used for a profile story on Weber.

But a few years ago, Weber left the Catholic Conference to return to work in state government.

His successor, Mike Hoey, is much more quiet, restrained and non-confrontational. It’s hard to imagine Hoey publicly debating a state governor as had Larry Weber.

As always, let me know (at column@mdn.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 www.mdn.org/mpacol or here.

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