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Senator Underdog in Annapolis

January 28, 2004|by BOB MAGINNIS

In my Dec. 31 column, I warned Maryland Senate President Thomas "Mike" Miller and his colleagues to think twice about casting Sen. Alex Mooney, R-Frederick, Washington, in the role of underdog.

They didn't listen then, but must pay attention now, as Mooney challenges Miller on the president's interpretation of the rules and anything else that comes to mind.

The trouble began in late December, when Miller announced he was nearly certain to push through a change in the Senate rules that would make it harder to mount a filibuster.

Instead or requiring a two-thirds vote of the Senate - 32 members - to break a filibuster, Miller proposed a three-fifths rule, which would require only 29 to shut down the debate.

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Miller said the change would mirror the U.S. Senate, which went to the three-fifths rule in 1975. With only 90 days to transact business, two or three filibusters would bring things to a grinding halt, Miller said.

Why change now? Because, Miller said, Mooney had sent out a fund-raising letter in which he threatened to use the filibuster to force Democrats to cast unpopular votes.

And so Miller pushed through the change, upsetting even those Republicans who are more inclined to work cooperatively.

Mooney has since clashed openly with Miller on the floor, calling for the appointment of a parliamentarian and asking that a building named in Miller's honor be renamed for the late Baltimore senator Clarence Blount instead.

Miller sloughed it off, saying that it's still early in the session, a time he called "the silly season."

But if Miller expects Mooney to go away or calm down, he'll be sadly disappointed, for a couple of reasons. The first is that Mooney does not see - or doesn't care about - the connection between working together and getting things done for your district.

He's capable of voting against the budget, then decrying the fact that Frederick County didn't get enough cash for road construction, claiming all the while that it was retaliation for being outspoken. Which in this case it will be.

Miller can't let Mooney's transgression go unanswered, not if he wants to keep a tight hold on the reins of power. I look for every bill sponsored by Mooney to be bottled up in committee and aid to Frederick County cut as a warning to local folks to curb him, or else. Which Mooney will holler about.

Hollering aside, Mooney's claim to be the fighting underdog is undermined by the fact that, as my colleague Tim Rowland has written, Mooney picked this fight by announcing he would stage filibusters before there was any legislation to object to.

Yes, the Democrats would no doubt have introduced something Mooney could oppose, but Mooney's approach is like the policeman who arrested a suspect on the grounds that while he might be innocent this time, he was bound to do something wrong sooner or later.

Miller may eventually be undone as the Senate's leader, but I doubt it will happen during this session. So what does Mooney hope to accomplish, other than grabbing some publicity to assist with fund-raising?

For a long time I've felt that Mooney's ultimate goal is to be elected to Congress, where there are hundreds of members, so it doesn't matter that much if a few aren't master legislators.

At some point Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-6th, will retire and his son Joe Bartlett notwithstanding, Mooney will jump into the race.

Bartlett himself helped Mooney toward that goal by putting his former aide in charge of raising funds for the unexpected primary challenge by Frederick prosecutor Scott Rolle.

So what does Miller do to put the lid on Mooney's objections? Appealing to a Republican governor is out, since Robert Ehrlich has already endorsed Bartlett and would be unlikely to chastise the congressman's chief fund-raiser before the primary.

My idea: Give Mooney a job on a committee studying an issue near and dear to Republicans' hearts, like tax policy or government reorganization, a job in which he would be under pressure to work with other lawmakers to produce a solution.

If he didn't do the work, or couldn't work well with the group to reach an acceptable compromise, then his fellow Republicans would be on his case.

This is not to say that Mooney is wrong on all or most issues. He's not; his critique of the last administration's spending was on target. But it takes more than being right to prevail in Annapolis.

The way to prevail on the filibuster question was 1) not to threaten one until there was a bill filed worth objecting to, and 2) make his arguments, not in speeches on the floor, but to the colleagues whose votes he needed.

It wouldn't have grabbed the same headlines, but it would have been effective legislating. It remains unclear which one of those things Sen. Mooney really cares about.

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