Miller seeks rules change

Senate president says he wants to cut number of votes to stop filibuster

Two-thirds majority needed

Plan would decrease that to three-fifths of chamber

December 26, 2003|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller says he plans to open the General Assembly session by pushing through a rule change that would cut the number of votes needed to squelch a filibuster - a proposal denounced by Republicans as a bid for absolute power.

Miller said he is virtually certain to carry out the threat he made last session to make it possible to end debate with three-fifths of the Senate, or 29 votes. It now takes 32 senators, or two-thirds of the 47 members, to end a filibuster.

"The object of government is to let the minority be heard but for the majority to prevail," Miller said. He said a decision will be made after he consults with the Democratic caucus a few days before the 90-day session begins Jan. 14.

The change would weaken the hand of the Senate's 14 Republicans, who now need the votes of two Democrats to filibuster a bill. It would also make it easier for Democrats to force Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to issue contentious vetoes.

GOP senators know there is little they can do to stop a rules change, which requires a majority vote, if Democrats unite behind it. But they're protesting in harsh terms.

Senate Minority Leader J. Lowell Stoltzfus of the Eastern Shore said the move shows that Miller is determined to rule the Senate as an "absolute monarch."

"If he starts the session like that, it's going to get real ugly," Stoltzfus said. "He's squashing us, and it's a power play, and I'm sorry to see him do it."

Miller ended this year's session with a threat to change the rule after he was forced to use all his influence with fellow Democrats to break a filibuster of a bill that included tax increases. The Senate president mustered the minimum 32 votes for cloture as Democratic state Sen. James Brochin of Baltimore County voted with the GOP.

"It's very time-consuming, it's very arduous, and it's a lot of wasted energy," Miller said.

A change to three-fifths would bring the Maryland Senate in line with the practice in the U.S. Senate, Miller pointed out. The U.S. Senate cut the cloture threshold from two-thirds to three-fifths in 1975.

"We can't have 18th-century rules in a 21st-century legislature," he said.

Miller said the Senate can't afford to sit through two or three filibusters a year when it meets for 90 days.

He complained that Republican state Sen. Alex X. Mooney of Frederick County had threatened in a fund-raising letter to use filibusters often to force Democrats to cast unpopular votes.

Mooney said the motive behind Miller's move is to prevent a filibuster against expected legislation to continue what he called the "assault weapons ban" after the federal prohibition expires next year.

The proposed change is a "sign of weakness" in the Democratic caucus, Mooney said, because Republicans can't sustain a filibuster without support from the majority party.

"The Democrats ought to be careful what they're wishing for, especially the black caucus," he said. Mooney said black senators in Georgia recently used the filibuster to block a bill that would have reinstated an old state flag with a Confederate symbol.

"Without the filibuster, that flag goes back," Mooney said. "So this knife cuts both ways."

But a leading African-American legislator, Senate Majority Leader Nathaniel J. McFadden of Baltimore, said he believes that Democrats - both black and white - will support Miller.

"Senator Mooney does not speak for the African-American community," McFadden said. "This is Maryland, not Georgia."

Brochin, the holdout on this year's cloture vote, said he is undecided about whether to support the change.

He said, however, that it could relieve some of the pressure on conservative Democrats to vote with the party to end filibusters.

Matthew Crenson, a political science professor at the Johns Hopkins University, said Miller's motives are obvious.

"With the governor's mansion in the hands of a Republican, he wants to solidify Democratic control of the legislature," Crenson said.

"It does solidify Democratic control over the Senate, and that means Mike Miller's control."

Crenson said the move is unlikely to provoke much public outcry.

"Voters generally don't pay attention to changes in rules. And if they do, they are more likely to appreciate the principle of majority rule than minority rights," he said.

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