Party lines up in Annapolis

January 16, 2005|by TAMELA BAKER

ANNAPOLIS - Politics just wouldn't be politics if Republicans and Democrats always could be counted on to hold hands and sing "Kumbaya."

Sniping between the parties is nothing new. But in traditionally Democratic Maryland - as in much of the country - politicians on both sides of the aisle are finding themselves in an era of transition.

Democrats still are the decided majority here; it was a foregone conclusion that Maryland would be a so-called "blue" state going for U.S. Sen. John Kerry in the 2004 presidential election.


But the "Republicanization" of the state's rural regions has turned enough counties "red" to cast the state in a purple haze.

On the state level, Republicans aren't quite as lonely as they were in decades past.

Dramatic upsets in 2002 brought Maryland her first Republican governor since Spiro Agnew and relieved the most powerful Democrat in the House of Delegates of his office. Republicans slowly were gaining a place at the political table.

Democrats still control the General Assembly, however, and while the current Assembly session is less than a week old, both sides are assessing their political weight.

A showdown was inevitable, perhaps, and for Republican delegates from Washington County, the Democrats threw down the gauntlet after Gov. Robert Ehrlich called a special session last month to consider a bill to reform the state's medical malpractice laws.

"There's politics underlying this that cannot be ignored," Washington County Delegation Chairman Christopher B. Shank said.

The debate over debate

Ehrlich's allies claim the governor believed he had specific agreements with Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch, both Democrats, on legal reforms included in his malpractice bill. His opponents say Miller and Busch had not agreed to all of the reforms included, and that Miller had never backed off his proposal to repeal a tax exemption enjoyed by the state's HMOs in order to pay for a stop-loss fund that would relieve doctors stung by soaring malpractice insurance charges.

When the lawmakers gathered in Annapolis for the special session two days after Christmas, the overwhelmingly Democratic legislature dumped Ehrlich's bill in favor of a rival bill sponsored by Miller. The vote nearly went exactly down party lines. Ehrlich later vetoed the bill, but Democrats in both houses overrode the veto last week.

House Republicans felt they'd been railroaded.

Calling medical malpractice reform "the single most important public policy issue that I have ever dealt with," Shank said Busch unfairly had cut off debate on the bill before each vote.

In December, he said, House members were to be allowed two minutes each to explain their positions before the vote was taken.

"I was cut off after one minute," said Shank, R-Washington.

When the special session resumed last week to consider whether to override Ehrlich's veto, House members were kept waiting for three hours for Del. Samuel Rosenberg, D-Baltimore, who was flying back from a trip to Israel, so that Busch would have enough votes to override the veto. Then, adding insult to injury in Republican minds, Busch cut off debate on the override after 30 minutes.

"I find that offensive and destructive to this institution," Shank said. "I believe in the right for the minority to be heard. The Speaker sensed he was losing and called for a vote."

Busch further incensed Republicans by moving one Republican leader's seat from the front of the chamber to a spot against the wall.

In the Senate, Republicans charged that the bill - and the override - were calculated to embarrass the governor. Democrat Paul G. Pinsky of Prince George's County shot back that the state was suffering from a "governing malpractice crisis and it rests on the second floor," where Ehrlich's statehouse office is located.

A House divided

Though the Senate appeared to be mending fences as the regular session opened on Wednesday, ill will was evident in the House. Republicans caucused to agree on strategy before the opening gavel fell shortly after noon.

Ehrlich, conspicuously absent from opening proceedings in the House, remarked that he had not received an invitation from Busch. Montgomery County Executive Douglas Duncan, expected to challenge Ehrlich in 2006, was seated in a VIP area up front.

When the vote was called to re-elect Busch as house speaker, no "nay" votes could be heard. But Republicans took the unusual step of calling for a roll call vote, and as the votes registered on tally boards on both sides of the House chamber, it was clear that every Republican had abstained.

Del. LeRoy E. Myers said the protest was a direct result of what Republicans felt was unfair treatment by the speaker.

"We're saying you need to allow a two-party system," said Myers, R-Washington/Allegany. "You need to allow debate until everybody is heard."

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