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Shape Of Debate In Missouri: Tinfoil Hats And Toy Helicopters

Things got a little out of hand at the Missouri state Capitol late Wednesday. An unusual evening session of the House featured a representative wearing a tinfoil hat, a toy black helicopter flying around the chamber and some heated words between legislators.

"It was definitely tense," says Jonathan Shorman, a reporter for the Springfield News-Leader. "It was a moment of high drama for the session."

The tension was rooted in several bills touching on topics of importance to conservatives. One would ban sharia law, or Islamic strictures, from the state of Missouri. Another would nullify federal gun control laws within the state. The third would ban implementation of Agenda 21, a United Nations plan for sustainable development that some fear intrudes on private property rights.

These bills passed the GOP-dominated chamber easily, most by a roughly 6-to-1 margin. The outnumbered Democrats were clearly unhappy.

Democratic state Rep. Michael Frame was reprimanded by GOP Speaker Tim Jones for wearing a tinfoil hat, as a sartorial comment on the nature of the legislation before the House. This led to a brief debate about whether a cravat is appropriate attire.

State senators, meanwhile, were celebrating their " seersucker caucus" day. A number of House members, jealous of the attention their Senate peers have received with their summer wear, had decided to dress Wednesday in beige suits and posed for a group photo.

At one point, a remote-control helicopter flew up from the floor to the press gallery, leading observers to tweet their thoughts that a few legislators could have taken advantage of the dinner break prior to the evening session to enjoy some adult beverages.

"Did I mention things feel a little drunk in here?" tweeted Jason Hancock, a government reporter with the Kansas City Star.

Shorman, the reporter from Springfield, speculated that the atmosphere may have been affected by a controversial education bill. The legislation is a priority of the GOP leadership, but another version had been defeated earlier in the session.

"Some of that revelry, those fun moments you saw earlier in the evening, were a way of getting people into a better mood before going into a controversial education bill," Shorman says.

If the mood was festive, it quickly turned sour. Rep. Keith English became embroiled in a verbal argument with Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, a fellow Democrat and a sponsor of the bill, who was watching the proceedings from a side gallery. English said loudly that he didn't want to be threatened and Nasheed left.

"On a lot of issues, people get fired up and tensions get raised," says Republican Rep. Jay Barnes, the House sponsor of the education bill, who did not take part in the argument.

Barnes said the fact that the measure was taken up after 10 p.m., at the end of an evening already filled with divisive legislation, was a matter of happenstance more than anything.

"I sure wish we could get bills like this across the finish line," he says.

The Missouri Legislature is scheduled to adjourn on May 17.

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Alan Greenblatt has been covering politics and government in Washington and around the country for 20 years. He came to NPR as a digital reporter in 2010, writing about a wide range of topics, including elections, housing economics, natural disasters and same-sex marriage.