Senate prepares for filibuster

Lawmakers take up politically charged bill on stem cell research today

General Assembly

March 08, 2006|By JENNIFER SKALKA | JENNIFER SKALKA,SUN REPORTER

With a potential filibuster looming over stem cell research, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller had a warning for his fellow senators when they wrapped business yesterday: "Try to keep your calendars clear for the next couple of days."

Miller's caution comes as the Senate takes up today the politically charged stem cell research bill, which lawmakers believe could ignite the chamber's first extended filibuster in seven years.

Last year, a stem cell research funding bill died before it could get to the floor, the result of a filibuster threat that Democrats would have been two votes shy of stopping. This year, however, with a stripped-down version of the bill in play, Democrats are expected to have the votes necessary -- at least 29 of the 47-member body -- to quash a filibuster.

But Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, the minority leader, said he believes Miller will nonetheless allow some extended debate on the matter "to try to appease both sides."

Stoltzfus, who opposes embryonic stem cell research, said he expects that Sens. John A. Giannetti Jr. and Roy P. Dyson -- both conservative Democrats -- will back a move to end a filibuster, giving Miller the two additional votes he needs to stop the debate.

Giannetti, who represents Prince George's County, said yesterday that he will support the stem cell proposal, which no longer uses the word embryo or requires annual state funding for research. "I spent a lot of time helping to make that bill more palatable," Giannetti said. "I think it would be disingenuous if I didn't vote for it."

Dyson did not return a call for comment.

The Senate will consider a bill that would set up a structure for allowing state funding of stem cell research. The proposal has been tweaked in committee to drop any future funding requirement and to take out one word: embryo. The measure also gives priority to research that is not supported at the federal level; President Bush restricted funding in 2001 to existing embryonic stem cell lines, giving priority to projects focused on adult stem cell research.

The Senate proposal limits research to embryos that would otherwise be discarded from fertility clinics.

The House approved a bill last week that would commit $25 million a year to stem cell research.

Sen. Sandra B. Schrader, a Howard County Republican who would have supported last year's filibuster, said yesterday she doesn't know what she will do this year. She said she resents that a Senate committee has slashed Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s $20 million budget proposal for stem cell research to $10 million. Schrader, who had expressed an interest earlier in the session in finding a compromise bill that both parties could support, said she doesn't believe legislation is necessary and that the governor's proposal -- a one-year funding commitment in the budget, without further legislation -- is preferable.

"I support the whole idea, but this is political infighting is what this is, and it's really taking its toll on our whole process," Schrader said.

Miller told reporters that Schrader, who is up for re-election this year, can't afford politically to oppose the legislation but is under pressure from others in her party. "Her Republican colleagues are burying her with this issue," Miller said.

The last time the Senate filibustered a bill for any length of time was in 1999. The modest, three-day affair -- which included breaks for committee meetings and meals, and didn't run through the night -- ended when the Senate agreed to a 30-cents-per-pack increase in the state tax on cigarettes.

The most recent extended filibuster lasted eight days in 1990. It involved a bill to permit abortions for minors without parental notice under certain circumstances. The proposal passed in the Senate but was killed in the House, said Johanne Greer, library coordinator for the Department of Legislative Services.

That filibuster had political implications, however, well beyond the day-to-day business of the Senate. Four anti-abortion senators lost their seats to primary challengers whose campaigns focused on keeping government out of women's private lives, and two abortion-rights supporters lost in the general election.

Miller said yesterday that filibuster talk must stick loosely to the topic. But given that the issue at hand -- whether Maryland should commit state money to embryonic stem cell research, which many scientists believe could help produce cures for a range of debilitating illnesses -- involves great moral dilemmas, members could get creative. In other words, reading the phone book might be a no-no, but if a lawmaker dives into the Bible, Miller might let that slide. "I wouldn't want to call somebody out of order for reading the Bible," Miller said.

jennifer.skalka@baltsun.com

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