On the floor, talk ran on and on

General Assembly



It's nearly 3 p.m. and Sen. Alex X. Mooney, on his feet and microphone in hand, is reading haltingly from a medical journal about something he's calling astro-cities - more specifically, astro-cities with ribbons in a petri dish.

For more than four hours, senators have been talking about stem cells, or about topics that seem as though they could be about stem cells though it's really hard to tell. The chambers started the morning packed. Now half the elected officials are gone, clerks are leafing through magazines and Mooney, a conservative Republican from Frederick County, is hammering home his point about astro-cities.

"What exciting news from adult stem cell research," he concludes brightly.

Sen. Lowell J. Stoltzfus, a Republican from the Eastern Shore, glances up from his desk with a look on his face that could only be construed as: "What the heck is he talking about?" No one asks.

A reporter who Googles it later finds out that the word is "astrocytes," a type of cell. And it's pronounced astro-sights.

The Senate hunkered down yesterday for its first full-blown filibuster in years, a tactic opponents hoped would bury a bill that would provide money for stem cell research. While the filibuster lasted six hours, the hunkering, not so long.

Sen. Andrew P. Harris, a Baltimore County Republican and physician jumps up to start the speech-a-thon a half-beat after the bill's sponsor, Baltimore County Democratic Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, finishes her introductory remarks.

Spread out on the desk before him are a copy of Developmental Biology, an assortment of fat, information-stuffed binders and a cup of water. It's 10:40 a.m., Harris has the attention of every ear in the room, is centered in the lens of every camera, and is prepared to talk - and talk and talk and talk - well into the lunch hour.

Almost immediately, the senator, mike in one hand, the other slipping casually into his pocket, announces, "I'm gonna get technical. I hope you let me do that."

No one objects. And he isn't kidding.

Harris conversationally swerves from the intricacies of cloning to the human genome to - believe it or not - Beethoven, flinging around terms like "mitochondria" and "nucleus" frequently enough to leave much of the room in a woozy high-school science class flashback.

Senators, one by one, head for the door. Most don't come back.

By lunchtime, someone probably could have gotten a quorum in the lounge, what with as many legislators holed up in there as in chambers. Relaxing on the upholstery, they devour sandwiches and salads. Open Chinese food containers are scattered about the dark wood tables. Baltimore Sen. Lisa A. Gladden has kicked off her shoes in favor of fuzzy socks.

In one little huddle, senators including Hollinger and Brian Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat, play cards.

Back on the floor, the debate chugs on. And it's not as if no one is paying attention.

Citizen advocates on both sides of the issue, who arrived early at the State House, driving in from places like Hyattsville and Bel Air and Bowie, hang on almost every word.

High overhead in the balcony galleries, these folks move in and out all day - people who want to see state money going to stem cell research taking seats right next to people who believe that using embryonic cells for science is essentially an abortion.

Someone in the front row has left lying open a book called Stem Cell Now. In the back row, a young priest is paging through the Bible.

Three Sisters of the Perpetual Adoration, nuns from Washington, sit together, a trio of crisp white habits.

The executive director of Maryland Families for Stem Cell Research is on her cell phone in the hallway, trying to arrange for an e-mail blast to legislators to stop the filibuster.

Lydia Carroll, who came with the nuns, is saying rosaries in the balcony, worrying translucent beads with her fingers.

"We've been praying the whole time so that our legislators might think clearly before voting on such a delicate issue," says the Annapolis woman, who's on the Archdiocese of Baltimore's Respect Life committee.

She hopes the prayer will float down to the lawmakers below and "soften their hearts." Yet as she watches them from above, down there on both sides of the aisles with phones glued to their ears, eyes fixed on laptops, chatting and laughing, she realizes they really aren't even listening - to the debate let alone the prayer.

"It's sad," she says.


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