Republicans in the General Assembly, weak in numbers but strongly united, have held true behind Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. on one tough vote after another for four years. But early yesterday morning, with what could be the defining issue of the coming election on the line, they split.
Under intense pressure from constituents seeking protection from a coming 72 percent BGE electricity rate increase, 13 of the 15 Republican delegates from Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties - two of the swing jurisdictions most crucial to the governor's re-election bid - resisted Ehrlich's last-minute entreaties and voted for the Democrats' deferral plan.
Three Republican senators, two of them from the BGE service area, voted for the bill as well.
Hours later, Ehrlich vowed a public relations blitz to convince consumers that the plan those Republican senators and delegates supported was craven election-year politicking, harmful to consumers and destructive to Maryland's business climate.
"There were a bunch of people who told us, `We know it's not good, but we have to vote for something,'" Ehrlich said, indicating that he hoped many members of his party would change their decisions if the time comes for a veto override. "As more facts come out on the provisions they actually voted on ... there may be another opportunity for those folks to vote."
The split between Ehrlich and Republican caucus members appears to be the largest on any major issue in the governor's four years in office.
Republican lawmakers would not publicly criticize the governor for taking a public stand that puts them in a difficult position with voters who want a rates deal. But Democrats said it shows that the governor demands total loyalty from fellow Republicans but gives none in return.
"This guy does not seem to care about anybody but his own political hide," said Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, a Southern Maryland Democrat who was one of the Assembly's leaders on the rate bill.
The BGE issue has become a flash point in the governor's race, with Ehrlich and his prospective Democratic opponents using it to highlight their leadership skills and bash each other. Although Ehrlich worked to keep his party united behind him, members of the GOP caucus said the question for them isn't about the governor's race but representing their own constituents on a major pocketbook issue.
"I've heard from countless constituents that people are tired of the blame game being played," said Del. Terry R. Gilleland Jr., an Anne Arundel County Republican who voted for the bill. "Clearly the bill that was passed isn't perfect, but it provides immediate and long-term relief for the consumer, and that was the most critical role for us to play in the special session."
In the minutes before the House of Delegates was set to vote, it was clear that the Democrats in the chamber would have no trouble mustering the votes for a veto-proof majority just as strong as the one that had prevailed in the Senate hours before.
Republicans are in the minority in both chambers. Fourteen of 37 senators and 43 of 141 delegates are Republican.
But, according to Republican lawmakers, Ehrlich wanted to hold his caucus together. He and top-ranking members of his administration, including Chief of Staff James C. "Chip" DiPaula Jr., called Republican lawmakers on the telephone in an effort to keep them in line.
A few others were summoned from the House floor to a personal meeting with the governor about 15 minutes before the final vote was taken.
"The governor laid out his case that he felt that this really wasn't the best way to go, and that it would be better to let this bill die," said Del. Joseph C. Boteler III, a Baltimore County Republican.
"I said, `Look, this is about the people that I represent, about working families, families with young kids who are struggling to make ends meet and about the elderly who are on fixed incomes,'" Boteler said. "I said, `This is a pretty harsh pill just to throw at them and tell them to swallow.'"
Boteler was one of the 15 Republicans in the House who voted for the bill. So was Del. John W.E. Cluster Jr., who shares Boteler's district in the Parkville-Perry Hall area of Baltimore County, an area Ehrlich won handily in 2002.
Cluster said he would have voted for the plan Ehrlich was championing - which was similar to the one that passed last night but lacked provisions to fire the Public Service Commission and the people's counsel.
But he said he liked provisions in the Democrats' plan that alter the way utilities buy electricity and generally move Maryland back toward a regulated electric industry.
"We got call after call from older people who said, `I can't afford this,'" Cluster said of the 72 percent increase. "Ultimately, that's what the decision came down to."