Senators protest filibuster rule


Lawmakers walk out

majority needed to end debate is changed

General Assembly

January 21, 2004|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

Calling Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. a "bully," three Republicans walked out of the Senate chamber yesterday in protest of a new rule that they said was a ploy by Democrats to prevent them from being heard.

The Senate changed its rules on filibusters to allow a two-thirds majority, 29 senators, to shut off debate. Previously, a three-fifths majority - 32 of the 47 senators - was needed to stop a filibuster.

"If we can't have a frank discussion on the floor of the Senate, I don't know why we're down here," said Sen. Andrew P. Harris, a Baltimore County Republican. "If that's the way business is going to be conducted, it's going to be a very long 90 days."

FOR THE RECORD - An article in yesterday's editions incorrectly reported a change in the state Senate's rules. It will now take a vote of at least three-fifths, or 29, of the 47 Senators to shut off floor debate on a measure. Previously, the rules required a vote of two-thirds, or 32, of the members.

The decision, which passed 27 to 16, makes it more difficult for GOP lawmakers because Republicans now fall well short of the votes needed to use lengthy debate as a tool to block or slow passage of bills - a tactic known as "filibustering."

Filing out one after the other, Harris, Sen. Alex X. Mooney, who represents Washington and Frederick counties, and Sen. Nancy Jacobs, who represents Harford and Cecil counties, walked out in frustration. They said Miller was violating procedures to push the rule change through.

The three Republicans also had planned to argue against a change in the Senate's rule for the prayer given before each day's session, but senators voted for that change while their GOP colleagues were out of the room. The Senate voted 43-to-0 to make attending the prayer optional.

"The Senate's in chaos. We have a bully who breaks the rules. We might as well let Miller be a tyrant," Mooney said.

It's just a week into the three-month legislative session and the tension between Democrats and Republicans appears to be growing. Several Senate Democrats have said Miller warned them that this session would be "war" with the Republicans.

But Miller portrayed yesterday's dispute as simply a natural occurrence in a two-party state.

"There's nothing that we've done today that hasn't happened dozens of times before in the Maryland Senate," Miller said. "The people dealt us a divided government.

"These are our friends," he said of the Republicans. "We're going to continue to deal with them as fellow legislators. This is going to be a very successful and productive session."

With the state's first Republican governor in more than three decades, Republican lawmakers are acting with a sense of empowerment not seen from the minority party in years. The GOP has loudly defended the governor on the floor of the Senate, accusing Democrats of trying to embarrass him with the overrides of several vetoes last week.

Republicans said they saw yesterday's decision to change the rules of Senate debate as another move by Democrats to hurt the GOP while also preventing all minority groups from voicing their concerns.

Republicans make up 14 of the 47 senators. That gives Democrats four more votes than required under the new rule to stop floor debate.

"I find it extremely egregious," said Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, an Eastern Shore Republican and minority leader. "Minorities need to be represented in this body."

Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat, said on the Senate floor yesterday that the rule change was necessary to avert gridlock. Frosh said Republicans have threatened to block progress in the legislature.

"They're going to bring the Senate to its knees. We don't need a tiny band of radicals tying up the Senate," he said.

The Senate was expected to have a heated debate over a change in the rule for prayer at the beginning of each day's session. But the three Republicans who left the Senate in protest were the primary critics of the new order for opening the session, so the rule passed without debate.

The old rule, which had been in place for 30 years, required all senators to register their presence in the Senate chamber before the opening prayer. But some Jewish lawmakers were offended by prayers last year that concluded with the words "in Jesus name."

The new rule still allows ecumenical prayers, but senators do not have to be present in the chamber when the prayer is said.

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