TOPEKA – With the balance of power in the Senate at stake and after an acrimonious meltdown in the Republican caucus, Senate President Steve Morris held off bringing the contentious issue of redistricting to a floor vote today.
Senators came to the floor late today expecting to vote on a map called "Buffalo 30," which creates districts friendly to moderate Republican incumbents who have been targeted for replacement by the conservative wing of their party.
But when he gaveled the Senate to order, Morris announced that he would be opening negotiations to try to develop a compromise map to bridge the chasm between the "traditional" Republicans and the more conservative elements.
He put off further discussion until 2 p.m. Wednesday at the earliest.
Following the meeting, Morris said he would probably put together a working group of three conservative Republicans, three moderate Republicans and a Democrat to try to hammer out a plan.
Morris delayed the vote after an angry caucus meeting, marked by complaints over his leadership and a walkout by the chairman of the Senate redistricting committee, who said he was sick of talking about politics.
Every 10 years, the Legislature is required to redraw House, Senate and congressional districts to account for population shifts in the Census. The makeup of districts is a key factor in who gets elected.
This year, the conservative faction in the Republican Party has been laying plans to try to unseat moderate Republican senators and add the Senate to its conservative strongholds in the House and the governor's office.
In today's contentious caucus meeting, Senate redistricting Chairman Tim Owens, R-Overland Park, walked out after saying he had become increasingly frustrated with the politics surrounding the issue.
"Does anybody else have any questions about the map?" he said. "If you don't I'm out of here. I don't need to sit and listen to this kind of garbage."
Then he got up and left the meeting.
Sen. Pete Brungardt, R-Salina, said the conservatives had "poisoned" the redistricting process in the Senate by announcing "they were going to take eight to 10 of us out" in the August Republican primary election.
Few seemed to believe that the differences between moderates and conservatives will be smoothed out and both sides appeared to be positioning themselves for an eventual court fight on redistricting.
"I think we're beyond resolution of this," said Sen. Jeff King, R-Independence. "As unfortunate as it is for everyone involved ... it's going to end up in court. I don't see the point of putting our caucus through this very divisive and painful discussion."
The House has passed a Senate map that is a variant of the conservative-leaning map called "For the People," first offered by conservative Sen. Steve Abrams, R-Arkansas City.
The Senate earlier passed a map called "Ad Astra Revised," that favored moderate senators, but the deviations in population from district to district were larger than in the Abrams map.
Population deviations are usually a key factor courts consider because achieving equal representation is the purpose of redistricting.
The Buffalo 30 map would keep the advantage for moderates, but was an effort to narrow the deviations and get district populations closer to ideal numerical distribution of voters.
"The numbers in this are good numbers," Owens said before walking out. "A court would accept these numbers, I am absolutely convinced of that.
Several of the conservative senators demanded that Morris and Majority Leader Jay Emler, R-Emporia, be called to the caucus meeting to explain themselves.
Morris said he and Emler were off by themselves "strategizing" over redistricting and the equally deadlocked issues of taxes and spending.
"If they weren't bold enough to come talk to us about a map, it's very disconcerting to me," said Sen. Susan Wagle, R-Wichita. "And the fact that they were more willing to work with a Democrat vote than the majority of their own caucus bothers me."
The Senate leaders need 13 of the 32 Republican votes – along with all eight Democrats – to pass a redistricting map.
The Ad Astra map passed with a bare majority, 21 votes, including seven of the eight Democrats.
The original Abrams map failed 19-21 when it came up for a floor vote in the Senate earlier this year.