Debate over congressional redistricting screeched to a halt in Annapolis today when Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., upset over a Senate proposal to cut up his native Eastern Shore, sent the House of Delegates home until Oct. 21.
Refusing to consider alternative Senate plans, Mitchell said, "We have a compromise plan that we have sent to the Senate, and I think they have to look at it."
Across the State House lobby, a clearly angry Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. accused the House of "turning tail and running." He said the Senate had considered all House proposals.
"If you can't solve these problems, you should step aside and let somebody else do it," Miller said of his counterpart in the House.
The action brought a sudden close to a special session that was supposed to draw new districts for Maryland's eight representatives in Congress. The deliberations began yesterday, with leaders of the houses backing different plans.
The House plan would keep the Eastern Shore intact, but it was unacceptable to Miller because it would set up a race between a Democratic incumbent, Rep. Tom McMillen, D-4th, and Rep. Helen D. Bentley, R-2nd.
Calmly, Mitchell today laid the blame for the impasse at Miller's door. In a brief speech to the delegates, Mitchell said it made no sense to keep them in Annapolis at taxpayer expense for several more days.
Mitchell said he and Miller need to talk and establish what he called a "systematic system" for dealing with the divisive issue. There was a smattering of applause from delegates when he finished.
Miller predicted the Senate would meet again today to craft several compromise proposals for the House to consider.
Gov. William Donald Schaefer, who heard Mitchell recess the House over an office intercom audio system, defended the speaker's action.
"He didn't walk," said Schaefer. "They couldn't get anything done. There's no use in sitting around doing nothing."
Speculation quickly spread throughout the State House that Mitchell was so upset with the Senate that he is willing to let a federal court draw Maryland's congressional districts. That would occur if the legislature cannot come up with a plan. If federal judges draw the boundary lines, some legislators say, they are not likely to split Mitchell's Eastern Shore.
The Senate's latest plan, among other things, would keep Baltimore County within three congressional districts, giving Bentley a base of about 380,000 people, including Essex and Dundalk intact.
But it would push Anne Arundel County into a slightly abbreviated 1st District on the Eastern Shore, with the likelihood that McMillen would be forced to run against Wayne T. Gilchrest, a Republican freshman from the 1st District.
Although the bill reportedly has the support of 38 of the 47 Senate members, it ran into serious trouble in the House because it splits Mitchell's Shore into two districts. Sources said the plan would put Cecil County, the northernmost Shore county, into the new Bentley district along with Harford County.
Word that the Eastern Shore could lose its uppermost county under the latest redistricting scenario drew cries of protest from Shore legislators today when a Senate redistricting committee met to discuss mapping plans.
"It looks like we're the ones who are going to be sacrificed," scowled Sen. Frederick C. Malkus Jr., the senior legislator from the Shore, who admitted that the handful of Eastern Shore lawmakers in the General Assembly may not have the clout to stop the plan.
"Fairness does not exist in the legislature," Malkus complained. "The only thing that counts is votes."
In a sharp comment to his senate colleagues, Malkus warned that on future issues, Shore lawmakers will pay back those who support the plan.
L "This division of the Eastern Shore won't go away," he said.
The compromise Senate plan, which sources say was orchestrated by Sen. John A. Pica Jr., D-Baltimore City, also has McMillen supporters distressed.
"That's something we're not happy with," Jerry Grant, McMillen's top aide, said this morning.
Before the House left, the Senate committee voted to conform a House mapping bill to a Senate version, hoping to set up a conference committee made up of House and Senate members. It was there that the compromise plan was to be brought up.
Until late yesterday, most lawmakers on both sides of the confusing issue stuck to a political script outlined by legislative leaders.
As expected, the House and Senate initially approved different congressional redistricting plans. While similar in many respects, the two plans have "philosophical differences," said Miller.
After quickly defeating several alternatives, the House voted 89 to 3 in favor of the plan that a state redistricting committee approved last week. That plan pits McMillen against Bentley in a district that spans Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties.