How long can state legislators continue talking about congressional redistricting without enacting a plan?
"There is no deadline," says the General Assembly's general counsel, Robert A. Zarnoch.
The federal courts, which can be called on to fashion a plan when a state legislature can't, probably won't intervene so long as legislators haven't given up trying, he says.
The question arises because of an impasse between the House of Delegates and state Senate on new boundaries for Maryland's eight congressional districts.
A committee of House and Senate leaders met yesterday in Annapolis without reaching agreement. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. rejected proposals made by House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell, Jr.
Despite Mitchell's willingness to make some changes to the House plan, he stuck to his basic position as Miller clung to his own.
The Senate and House plans differ mainly over the district that would pit Rep. Tom McMillen, D-4th, against Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, R-1st.
In the Senate version, the district would include portions of Anne Arundel County and the Eastern Shore, minus Cecil County. The House wants to include Cecil County's 71,000 residents in the district and delete that many from Anne Arundel, making it more of a Shore district.
Mitchell is from the Shore and doesn't want it to lose clout in Congress. Miller, who is from Prince George's County, wants to help McMillen by allowing him to keep more of the Anne Arundel base he has now.
Miller also argues that it's fairer to have Anne Arundel County dominate the district because Anne Arundel has more population, 427,000 residents, than the Eastern Shore, which has 343,000 when Cecil County is included.
The modifications Mitchell proposed to Miller would keep Cecil County with the Eastern Shore, but offer McMillen some potentially more sympathetic precincts in Baltimore City or Anne Arundel County.
Mitchell, who like Miller is a Democrat, said the House plan is the only one with the support of a large majority of House Democrats, who greatly outnumber Republicans. He insisted the modifications were an attempt to satisfy the Senate, but Miller said they fell short.
"On behalf of the Senate I applaud this movement," Miller said, "but I think for there to be an agreement between the two bodies, on at least the Senate side, I think there has to be some more movement on numbers in Anne Arundel County."
Miller seemed to suggest the House was more willing to please Republicans -- who hold three of the eight congressional seats -- than protect a Democrat like McMillen, who he said is more valuable to the state because of his committee assignments.
Miller alluded to the possibility that the federal courts could be forced to come up with a new plan. The courts are involved in redistricting in differing ways in Arkansas, California, Illinois, Michigan and Oregon, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Although there is no redistricting deadline per se, there's a political deadline of Dec. 23, the filing date for congressional candidates. That leaves Miller and Mitchell more time to talk, and they promised to do so if as they parted ways yesterday.
If they talk past Oct. 25, they'll have to extend the deadline for ending the special session they called to deal with redistricting. That session began Sept. 26.
Just before Miller left, he tried to dispel reports that the issue is purely a personal dispute between the two leaders.
"I think you can discern this is not something between Clay and myself. This is something much more basic. Neither he nor I is running for Congress."