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On a party line vote Tuesday, the Missouri Senate Rules Committee sent a nonbinding resolution to the full Senate urging Attorney General Chris Koster to join their lawsuit declaring that the federal government has no right to penalize people or businesses for not having health insurance. The hearing was meant to be quick and dirty, with no public input, just getting the thing out of committee, so that the most adamant of the Republican senators could paint their faces white and do a little kabuki on the Senate floor. (Which they did on Wednesday, handily passing the resolution.)

As it turned out, though, the Tuesday hearing was not quick and dirty. Sixty activists who had gotten wind of the hearing showed up to testify against it. Afterwards several of them talked to its target, Attorney General Chris Koster, because they had gotten wind that he is considering doing as the resolution urges and joining the lawsuit against the federal government. Here’s what he told them:

Welcome, and I appreciate your interest in this. It is, as you know … we have… this office has tried to maintain a nonpolitical posture with regard to this going forth. The reality is we have had aggressive lobbying on behalf of the proponents of health care. The White House has asked us to become involved and to sign amicus briefs at various points. And we’ve stayed out of that and said no to proponents. We’ve also said no to opponents of this. We’ve had many groups such as yours who feel opposite on this matter from your own advocacy who’ve come and implored us to get involved.

Our view is, as you may know, I’ve come out of the legislature. I was over there on the Senate side four years. We’ve tried to run this organization here in a very nonpartisan way. If a Democratic officeholder makes a request, a research request or whatnot, we jump to it. If a Republican asks us for assistance, we try and give both sides of the political aisle absolutely the same deference and energy and courtesy.

We have not asked for this to come to our door–it is being brought to our door by the General Assembly–and have resisted politicizing this issue over the past twelve, well eleven months now. (I think it passed in February of ’10.) That having been said, I do have a constitutional obligation to act as general counsel for the government. No matter what my personal views on an issue are, that if the General Assembly makes a request that I have to be cognizant of it and take it seriously. A lawyer that does not listen to his clients’ requests, you know, is probably not … that lawyer is not fully cognizant of what his duties are. I do have that role.

This job, the people of this state do not want a partisan Democrat or a partisan Republican as Attorney General. They just don’t. They want just sort of a standard cop as AG, someone who’s just going to call the facts as they are. So if the General Assembly makes a request, I have to at least acknowledge that the organization that speaks on behalf of people of the state–and who holds the budget for this office and can snap off the oxygen to this office very quickly and there’s no one over there who can stop it–I have to at least be cognizant of what is going on over there.

My hope is that they will act very judiciously. I don’t know … my sense is that a few minutes ago they passed it out of committee. Is that right? And so we’re going to wait and see what they do on the floor. I think that, my belief is that, this is not unanimous within the full Republican caucus, that there are Republicans who don’t think that this the right time to pass such a resolution. And so we’re waiting to see what happens.

But I want you to know that I’m very cognizant of your voice in this as well. I’ve been getting a lot of input from citizens on both sides of this issue, lots and lots of input. And we are listening. And that is, I think, at the end of the day, my job. I have to listen.

I get Koster’s point that as the AG he’s supposed to act in a nonpartisan manner, offering equal courtesy and research services, for example, to elected officials from each party. I also get it that he didn’t ask to get embroiled in this. He’s stuck in the middle. And he’d be remiss, as general counsel for the government, if he didn’t take seriously a resolution from government officials urging action on his part. Furthermore, I’m not silly enough to tell him not to worry about budgetary reprisals if he ignores the resolution.

I’d like to think that, given his druthers, he’d favor health care reform, but I don’t know that he would for sure, especially considering his recent allegiance to the other party. All I can say is that if he’s looking for a way to keep this cup from passing to him, he should be investigating the costs of the suit. Jane Cunningham (R-Chesterfied), the sponsor of the resolution, claimed it would not cost the state anything. I don’t mean to be cynical, but Republicans have been known to be less than truthful. Sen. Jolie Justus (D-Kansas City) was skeptical:

“I’m going to have to do some of my own checking, because I find it absolutely unfathomable that Missouri could get involved in a federal lawsuit and it wouldn’t cost us a penny,” Justus said. “That just doesn’t make any sense.”

The other way out for Koster, and this is the one he mentioned to activists on Tuesday, is that Senate Republicans might not be unified on this question anyway. I get the sense that if he gets the sense that the entire Senate won’t be up in arms if he refuses, then … maybe he’ll refuse.

So the 64 dollar question is, how did the vote go on Wednesday? Yes, it passed, but not to resounding huzzahs.  Missourinet describes the voice vote this way:

Only about ten voices were heard voting “aye” in the senate…Three voices were heard saying “no”   Most of the members had left the chamber before the vote was taken. The Senate has 33 members.

Okay, so ten of the 26 Republicans in the Senate bothered to vote. I hear their attitude loud and clear. How about you, Mister Koster?