The General Assembly session could end at midnight Monday in the middle of an extended debate over state funding for embryonic stem cell research, which would leave the contentious legislation to die when Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller's gavel falls.
Miller said yesterday that he probably will bring the stem cell measure to the floor of the Senate for a debate in the final hours of the session. But with Republicans and other opponents promising a filibuster, it would be the last issue that the chamber considers.
"If there comes a time when there is a lull in the session, I'll bring it up for a period of time, just so we can demonstrate to the public how mean and ugly one of these debates can be," Miller said yesterday.
Under Senate rules, 29 votes in the 47-member chamber are needed to end arguments and bring a bill to a cloture vote. Stem cell research supporters are one or two votes short of the number required to halt discussion, Miller said.
"At the present time, I would like to get the budget done and get out most of the bills from committee," Miller said. "Honest and truly, I don't see any possibility of compromise. I don't see any possibility of resolving the matter in an amicable fashion. I don't see any way of getting the votes to cut off debate at this point in time."
Supporters of embryonic stem cell research in Maryland and other states are looking for ways to nurture their biotechnology industries after Washington severely restricted federal spending on such research. California has committed to spending $3 billion over 10 years, and New Jersey has created a statewide funding mechanism, leading proponents in Maryland to argue that the state must join the trend.
A bill authorizing the research has passed the House of Delegates, and two Senate committees have approved slightly different versions. The House bill would commit $23 million yearly to stem cell research - which offers the hope of curing genetic diseases such as diabetes and Alzheimer's - providing the funds from a stream of payments being made by tobacco companies.
The Senate plan would authorize a fund and leave it to the governor to decide how much to budget for the program each year.
Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who supported stem cell research as a congressman, has not taken a position on the legislation.
The stem cell issue is one of the major pieces of legislation remaining unresolved as the Assembly session enters its final five days. More critically, the House and Senate have yet to agree on a budget. Passing a spending bill is the only task that lawmakers are required to accomplish.
House and Senate budget negotiators have not met since Monday and remain deadlocked over whether to reduce the state portion of property tax bills. House leaders favor a rollback. Senators aren't sure it is affordable, and also acknowledge that the better time to give a tax break would be in 2006, an election year.