When Maryland lawmakers arrived in Annapolis today for the purpose of adopting new congressional boundaries, they had at least two maps from which to chose.
Selecting one redistricting plan over the other promised to be anything but simple. And today's special legislative session, originally supposed to last only one day, could turn into one of the most divisive and confusing gatherings of the General Assembly in recent memory.
Tempers flared early today when a state senator, upset that both plans would carve Baltimore County into several pieces, railed against what he said was unfair treatment of the county.
At the end of a Senate-House joint committee hearing yesterday on the redistricting plans, it remained unclear not only how long the session will last, but how -- and whether -- the Senate and the House of Delegates will resolve differences between each legislative body's plan.
Bewildered lawmakers and State House pundits speculated that the special session could run several days and could be recessed even until next week while key legislators work out a compromise plan.
If the House and Senate pass their own separate redistricting bills, the fate of the new congressional maps could be decided sooner by a six-member conference committee. If that fails, the legislature could declare a mutual defeat and let a federal court draw the boundaries.
Or, some lawmakers say, a deadlocked General Assembly could call it quits, pass emergency legislation moving Maryland's 1992 presidential and congressional primary elections from early March to a later date and return to the redistricting conundrum during the regular session beginning in January.
At stake is more than the political livelihood of Maryland's eight incumbent congressional members, although the major debate appears to be whether Rep. Helen D. Bentley, the 2nd District's feisty Republican, will be pitted against Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, a fellow Republican from the 1st District, or Rep. Tom McMillen, a Democrat from the 4th District.
After a remarkably calm hearing before the joint committee yesterday on about a dozen redistricting plans, the House Rules Committee quickly voted 11-4 in favor of a plan that would put McMillen and Bentley in the same district.
The plan endorsed by the House committee was approved late last week by Gov. William Donald Schaefer's advisory committee on redistricting and has the support of the governor and House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., D-Eastern Shore, who served on the panel.
But, by voting 9-5 yesterday to send a different plan to the Senate floor, a special Senate redistricting committee set the stage for a potential deadlock over the issue.
That plan -- which pits Bentley against Gilchrest -- is favored by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Prince George's, who also is a member of the governor's redistricting panel. He was in Ireland last week when the gubernatorial panel made its final recommendation.
While both the House and the Senate appear to be following their leadership with the endorsements of each body's redistricting plan, the route each took differed widely.
The vote in the House committee took less than two minutes. But the Senate panel, which consists of several powerful and independent committee chairmen, spent the better part of the afternoon in a lively and sometimes befuddling gabfest over what effect various "conceptual" amendments would have on the overall redistricting plan.
Although the Senate committee rejected three such "concepts," the action does not prevent supporters from bringing the issues up as formal amendments during floor debate.
Concerns by some lawmakers that Baltimore County will be sliced into four or five districts erupted today in the Senate committee work session when Sen. Walter M. Baker, D-Eastern Shore, told the group to approve the Miller-backed plan and send it onto the Senate floor.
"The world will little note nor long remember what we do here," Baker said, touching off an angry outburst from Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell, D-Baltimore County.
"Except for Baltimore County," he responded loudly. "You better believe we'll remember."
"The system stinks," Bromwell hissed a moment later.
Urging his colleagues to put aside their personal grievances with the plan, Sen. Clarence W. Blount, D-City, yesterday told committee members to focus on how to get the plan through both chambers of the legislature.
"This is merely a skeleton and we're trying to put some flesh on it," Blount said, referring to the plan.