Just after 5 a.m. Wednesday, sleep-deprived Republican senators were huddled behind closed doors.
A Democratic filibuster that began 37 hours earlier had no end in sight.
Republican leaders were intent on approving legislation amending the state’s constitution to allow certain businesses and organizations to refuse services to same-sex couples based on religious beliefs.
Democrats were just as intent on killing the legislation, which they say would enshrine anti-gay discrimination in the state’s constitution.
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With neither side ready to give in, and with the entire saga beginning to attract national attention, Republicans — the majority party — decided they had only one option.
They went nuclear.
To cut off debate, end the filibuster and force a vote on the bill, they turned to a sporadically used parliamentary procedure: “moving the previous question,” used only 15 times in the Missouri Senate since 1970.
Now the Missouri General Assembly has entered into uncharted waters, with Capitol observers left wondering what happens next with two months remaining before the legislative session adjourns for the year.
Will Democrats retaliate by turning to parliamentary hijinks designed to tie the Senate in procedural knots and make it difficult or impossible for any bill to pass?
Embolded by the success of the nuclear option, will Republicans abandon the Senate’s longstanding tradition of unlimited debate and regularly squelch filibusters?
“We are (24) in the majority. They are eight in the minority,” said Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard, a Joplin Republican. “At some point we have to move on and to the business of Missouri.”
On a 23-9 vote Wednesday morning, the “religious freedom” bill was given initial approval after one of the longest filibusters in Missouri Senate history.
Democrats began the talk-a-thon shortly after 4 p.m. Monday. They didn’t stop until debate was shut down after 7 a.m. Wednesday morning.
Republicans argued that the amendment was designed to prevent those with sincerely held religious beliefs from being punished by government.
“No one should be compelled to make a work with their own hands that’s offensive to their beliefs,” said Sen. Bob Onder, a St. Charles County Republican.
Democrats opposed the measure so vociferously because it “renders some people subhuman, second-class citizens.” said Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, a University City Democrat.
The bill is one of many that have been introduced in state legislatures around the country since the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in June legalizing same-sex marriage.
So it’s not surprising that as the filibuster dragged on it began to garner national attention, including tweets of support from Democratic presidential hopefuls Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz offered his support to GOP senators in a tweet early Wednesday morning.
With debate stretching into its third day, enough was enough, said Senate Majority Leader Mike Kehoe, a Jefferson City Republican.
“There’s other work we have to get done,” he said.
That’s when Republicans voted to “move the previous question,” or “PQ” for short.
With a simple majority vote, a PQ ends debate and forces a vote on any bill or amendment that’s being considered. It’s a maneuver used daily in the Missouri House, but it’s been historically rare in the Senate. Usually, filibusters come to an end when the party doing the talking gives in.
That’s begun to change, however, as Wednesday’s vote marks the third time Republicans have gone nuclear in the last three years.
How Democrats will respond is still up in the air.
“We’re evaluating all options available to use under the rules,” said Sen. Jason Holsman, a Kansas City Democrat, who along with other Senate Democrats is playing their cards close to their chest.
Yet they offered a preview of their strategy after debate was cut off Wednesday morning, when Democrats began forcing votes on every motion and slowing down the functions of the Senate.
Most believe they’ll work to shut down the Senate completely with procedural chicanery and extended filibusters.
But in the 10 times the Senate majority has gone nuclear since 2003, it has always done so near the end of the legislative session in order to get as much done as possible before the minority party retaliates and grinds proceedings to a halt.
That’s how it played out last year, when Democrats filibustered the last week of the session over a forced vote on a right-to-work bill. Their efforts killed every bill on the Senate calendar.
This year, the nuclear option was unleashed two months before the session’s final day and before the Senate has even received the budget from the Missouri House.
Gridlock could turn into constitutional crisis if approval of the state’s $27 billion budget is put at risk.
“That’s their privilege,” Richard said of the Democratic efforts to gum up the works in the Senate. “We hope that doesn’t happen. We still have business to do.”
But the tactic could also backfire badly on Democrats if Republicans decide to unleash the PQ more frequently.
The Senate debate calendar is chock full of bills Democrats despise, including a mandate for voters to show a photo ID to cast a ballot and new restrictions on abortion providers.
The only thing standing in the way of many of these bills becoming law is the threat of a filibuster.
Senate leaders have historically been hesitant to cut off debate because it generates lasting bitterness among lawmakers. And three Republican senators — Ryan Silvey of Kansas City, Rob Schaaf of St. Joseph and Bob Dixon of Springfield — broke with their party and voted against shutting down the filibuster Wednesday morning.
Not to mention some bills, such as one that would establish a statewide prescription drug monitoring program, have died in the Senate in the face of Republican-led filibusters, a privilege some in the majority party may not be interested in giving up.
For his part, Richard maintains it’s not his intention to turn the Senate into the Missouri House, where Republican leaders regularly steamroll the minority party by shutting down debate on legislation.
But he kept his options open.
“If the filibuster can be used any time, there’s always an opportunity for the opposite end of our rules,” Richard said.