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Partisans lob loaded words - like 'suicide pact' - as Legislature heads into final stretch

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 7, 2009 - Rancor reigns as the Missouri Legislature heads into its final days of this session.

A sample of the latest heated rhetoric:

-- The Missouri Democratic Party asserted late Wednesday that six St. Louis area Republican legislators chose to participate in a "GOP suicide pact" by casting votes late Wednesday to defeat HB11, a budget measure that the Democrats note "would have expanded health care to 35,000 Missouri parents at no additional cost to Missouri taxpayers."

-- The Missouri Republican Party contended a few hours earlier that Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, "has been humiliated on the few (legislative) proposals on which he has expressed an opinion.."

State GOP executive director Lloyd Smith singled out the governor's initial opposition to HB22, a stimulus spending bill that was rejected by the House last week -- and then resurrected and overwhelmingly passed Monday night.

The testy talk by both camps may be aimed, in part, at encouraging their own members to stick together and focus on the opposition.

Ken Warren, a political science professor at St. Louis University, says that both state parties "are pretty much taking their cues from the national leadership," where recent verbal shots have been fired off in rapid succession.

Warren added that he was somewhat mystified by the popularity of political name-calling. "I don't see an advantage for either party,'' he said. "But when politicians do something, they do see an advantage."

Some in both camps privately say the latest war of words is actually milder, as a whole, than those lobbed near the end of recent legislative sessions. The exception seems to be the "suicide pact" talk from the Democrats.

The Missouri Democratic Party appeared to be following Nixon's lead, who earlier had issued a strong statement registering his disappointment at the House vote Wednesday to defeat the conference report for HB11, which contained the healthcare expansion. It was to be funded largely by federal money obtained by increasing the amount paid to the state by private hospitals; the hospitals support the idea.

The governor, who until recently has generally avoided partisan shots, asserted after Wednesday's vote that that "the Republican-led Legislature has done virtually nothing to improve our state’s economy..."

The state Democratic Party then came out with its own strong statement, with the headline asserting "Legislators stick with GOP suicide pact." The release quotes party chairman Craig Hosmer: "I have no doubt that for many of the House members who followed the GOP party line today, the price of their vote will be their seat next November."

The GOP members singled out include: Tim Jones of Eureka, Doug Funderburk of St. Charles, Rick Stream of Kirkwood, Dwight Scharnhorst of Manchester, Mark Parkinson of St. Charles and Sally Faith of St. Charles.

So far, the state Republican Party has said nothing about that Democratic attack, in part because most of its Senate Republicans favored the health-care expansion plan in HB11, and many of them also are angry at House Republicans.

Instead, the state Republican Party is focusing primarily on Nixon, who came under fire from some St. Louis Democrats last week because of his initial opposition to HB22, a bill allocating more than $300 million in federal stimulus dollars to various projects, including $12 million for the St. Louis region's troubled Metro transit system.

A shift in Democratic votes was a key reason why the bill was overwhelmingly approved when it was resurrected on Monday. A Nixon spokesman said Thursday, "While the governor supports certain parts of the bill – such as the funding for Metro – he remains concerned about the bill as a whole and will review it very closely if it gets on his desk."

State GOP executive director Smith called the episode "a rare instance of Nixon stating an opinion on an issue, but his statements were utterly disregarded by the members of his own party... Just five months into his term, Nixon should be able to demonstrate much more influence over Democrats in the General Assembly than he has shown."

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.

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