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By Phill Brooks

In a recent debate, Missouri's Senate degenerated to a level of majority-party discord I have not heard in decades.

But tales about cats during the filibuster reminded me how the Senate of old managed anger.

This year's discord involved a filibuster over the electric utility industry's efforts to change how their rates are set.

Supporters argue more money is needed to modernize the electrical delivery system.

Opponents, argue there's no guarantee the rate increases would be used for infrastructure rather than for stockholder profits.

The issue split the Republican Senate.

A majority along with their leadership supported the bill. But the filibuster to stop a vote was led by a Republican faction that has been at odds with the leadership for some time.

Opponents dropped their filibuster when threatened that a "previous question" motion would be passed to force an immediate vote on a bill even more friendly to utilities.

That was historic. While PQ motions have been common when the minority party filibusters, not so when majority-party members filibuster.

Threatened with a PQ motion, utility-bill opponents sat down and allowed a preliminary vote.

But a few days later, bill opponents announced they discovered that supporters actually did not have the 18 votes needed to stop their filibuster.

If true, that would be an historic breach of honesty among colleagues on something as serious as shutting off debate.

"We as a people of Missouri are dependent upon us to do legislation based upon truth and honor," said the leading opponent, Sen. Rob Schaaf, R-St. Joseph. He essentially charged his colleagues with deceit.

That's unusually harsh language for the Senate.

But it got worse. One of the bill's supporters responded with a vicious attack against Schaaf for subjecting members to being "preached to about lying."

The rhetoric was so heated I wondered whether in the remaining few months of this session the Senate could recover from the anger and bitterness I heard.

But a digression during the filibuster reminded me how humor once had been used to reduce anger in the Senate.

It came when Sen. Doug Libla began talking about an abandoned cat he brought home, but who could never became tamed.

"He was a garage cat. He wasn't an inside house cat, he was too tough for that."

Libla talked about how the cat would bite at their legs when they brought groceries into the House. "He didn't care about anything but food."

So after a few years, Libla moved him to the barn of their nearby farm. But his cat wandered off.

"You would think that alley cat would probably have forgave me or something...he would have a good life over there because we're on the Current River," Libla said in a rural twang that I've found make rural senators such entertaining story tellers.

Schaaf talked about his own experiences with cats.

"Pepper doesn't like me too much...that might have something to do with me grabbing her and taking her to the vet one time," he told the Senate describing putting her into a carrier for the vet trip.

"You've got to wear leather gloves up to your shoulders and put them into the carrier back in," Schaaf joked.

He also talked about the time he got bitten during a live TV interview session while holding a cat as part of an animal shelter effort for the program.

These kind of stories are more important to the legislative process than you might realize.

In the Senate of old, filibusters often were diverted into near comedy routines for no other purpose than to calm tempers.

With stage-craft skills developed from years of chamber experience no longer possible with term limits, some of these routines were hilarious.

At the end of this year's angry filibuster, a clearly distraught Sen. Bob Dixon, R-Springfield, admonished his colleagues: "If we can't have respect for one another...at the very least let's respect one another's constituents,"

Or, maybe, they should spend more time talking about cats.

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[Phill Brooks has been a Missouri statehouse reporter since 1970, making him dean of the statehouse press corps. He is the statehouse correspondent for KMOX Radio, director of MDN and a faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism. He has covered every governor since the late Warren Hearnes.]

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