Abortion: Same Issue, But New Year

February 24, 1991|By SANDY BANISKY

ANNAPOLIS. — Annapolis.--A YEAR AGO, abortion was the King Kong of issues here, a monster that seized the General Assembly and terrorized legislators until they finally managed to drive the creature from their chambers for the rest of the rest of the 1990 legislative session.

The siege, marked by an eight-day anti-abortion filibuster in the Senate, bruised legislators, wounded friendships and left people warier than ever of the abortion debate they knew they'd have to face in the future.

But this year, abortion -- though not quite a lamb of an issue -- turned out to be tameable. Before the 90-day legislative session was halfway through, an abortion-rights bill had been enacted and signed into law.

And legislative leaders who argued on both sides of the issue ended the debate with handshakes, complimenting each other for their courtesy on a difficult issue. Quite a contrast to the frustration and bitterness that marked last year's abortion debate.

What made the difference?

A Senate president and House speaker determined not to let the bill dominate this legislative session, people on both sides of the issue say. A politically organized abortion-rights electorate. The defeat last fall of the most passionate anti-abortion legislators. A governor who was willing to push for the bill's passage.

And, perhaps, exhaustion -- emotional and political.

After arguing about the bill through the 1990 legislature and watching the issue define many of the 1990 campaigns, many legislators believed there was no point in delaying a vote on the issue any longer.

No matter how eloquent the debate, no matter how many more weeks were spent lobbying, the outcome, the legislators believed, was unlikely to change.

"I think the horrors of the eight-day filibuster set the stage, set up a never-again atmosphere," Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, D-Baltimore County, said last week, as the House was debating the bill. "The longer you let a bill like this hang around, the uglier it gets."

"It wasn't a year to postpone it," said Steven Rivelis, who lobbied for Choice PAC, an abortion-right fund-raising group. "It wasn't a year to play games anymore. It was a year for a vote."

"I think there was a tacit understanding among people on both sides that they were going to go through the process and not invest a lot of emotion," said Michael W. Burns, head of the Maryland Right to Life Political Action Committee.

"This is strictly a personal issue," said House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., D-Kent, who insisted on a swift vote to settle the issue -- though he cast his ballot against the bill. "It's an issue that you're not going to change a vote on one way or the other."

Last year, the sponsors of the abortion-rights bill insisted that Maryland had to enact an abortion-rights bill quickly, to protect the right to abortion here in case the United States Supreme Court overturned its 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision, which made abortion legal.

But Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Prince George's, said he didn't see the urgency last year. Until the legislative session opened, he was telling anyone who asked that abortion just wasn't going to be an issue.

A Roman Catholic who was beginning to acknowledge that he would vote for abortion rights, Mr. Miller cast himself as an observer in 1990, presiding over the Senate but leaving the vote-counting and lobbying to others.

Then the filibuster locked up the Senate, and Mr. Miller found himself forced into the issue -- and being blamed for not taking charge earlier.

This year, Mr. Miller was determined not to let another filibuster stall the Senate or cause him any new political damage. He declared himself to be the leader on an abortion-rights bill months before the session even began.

In October and November, he was talking with senators to hear what kind of legislation they could support -- what provisions they would not abide, what compromises had to be included to draw enough votes to be able to shut down a filibuster.

He named three Senate leaders to sponsor a measure -- Majority Leader Clarence Blount, D-Baltimore; Deputy Majority Leader John A. Pica, D-Baltimore, and Judicial Proceedings Chairman Walter M. Baker, D-Cecil. Mr. Miller counted the votes himself and went into the debate sure of victory.

"I think the leadership recognized it was inevitable, so it was better to have it done in an orderly fashion and not have it unravel the way it had happened the year before," said Bebe Verdery, lobbyist for Planned Parenthood of Maryland. "And there was a public expectation that the bill be acted on this year."

By taking charge, Mr. Rivelis said, Mr. Miller "was delivering a message: 'This is important to me. I want it resolved.' And he put his political reputation on the line by doing that. Big, big difference" from the Senate president's stance a year ago.

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