Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. said yesterday that he will not allow legislation authorizing state money for embryonic stem cell research to come to the Senate floor unless supporters show they have enough votes to break a threatened filibuster.
"It will come to the floor when there are 29 members of the Senate who will say they are willing to cut off debate," said Miller (D-Calvert), voicing concern that a stalemate could back up dozens of other bills in the General Assembly's waning days.
Versions of the stem cell bill have passed the House of Delegates and two Senate committees.
In explaining Miller's hesitation, colleagues pointed to an extended filibuster 15 years ago that tied up the Senate for eight days. That unruly debate -- over abortion rights -- included name-calling and repeated outbursts. It came early in Miller's tenure as president and prompted some to question the leadership of a politician who has since gained a reputation for masterful control of his chamber.
"I think at all costs, he'd like to avoid another spectacle like that," said Sen. John C. Astle (D-Anne Arundel), a member of the House of Delegates at the time.
Opponents and supporters of the stem cell bill claimed momentum yesterday in their efforts, respectively, to mount such a spectacle and to muster the three-fifths vote that would be needed to end it.
"We're just about there," Sen. Paula C. Hollinger (D-Baltimore County), the lead sponsor of the bill, said after a closed-door meeting with Miller. Hollinger said she has agreed to produce a list of senators willing to vote to end the filibuster before debate begins.
The legislation would authorize the state to spend money on research that President Bush has restricted on the federal level. Advocates say it holds great promise for the treatment of Parkinson's disease, spinal cord injuries and a host of other debilitating conditions. Opponents object to the research, however, because it involves the destruction of viable human embryos left over from in vitro fertilization.
Senate Minority Whip Andrew P. Harris (R-Baltimore County) said a coalition of Republicans and conservative Democrats "for whom this is a life issue" is ready "to talk about it for quite a while."
"If [Miller] wants all day, all night, we'll do all day, all night if necessary," Harris said. "I'm not sure that the Senate is willing to bottle up hundreds of bills to spend days on this issue."
Lawmakers are scheduled to adjourn for the year April 11 and still face a long list of legislative priorities, including final passage of the state's $26 billion budget.
Supporters of the stem cell legislation said they are confident they can produce a majority of votes to pass it -- 24 of the 47 senators. But if opponents avail themselves of the Senate's unlimited debate rules in a filibuster, supporters of the bill will need 29 votes to cut off the extended discussion.
Lobbying in recent days has focused on Democrats who are inclined to vote against the bill but might be persuaded to break the filibuster out of loyalty to others in their party.
A House version of the bill calls for offering $23 million a year to researchers, starting in 2007. The Senate bill originally called for spending $25 million annually but was amended this week so that it does not mandate an amount. Funding for the research would have to compete with other priorities in future budgets.
Miller has allowed two other controversial social issues to come to the Senate floor in recent weeks. One bill, which would let gay partners make health care decisions for one another, passed. Another, which would have allowed the dispensing of emergency contraception without a doctor's prescription, was voted down.
The difference between those bills and the stem cell bill, for Miller, is the prospect of something akin to the 1990 abortion filibuster. At points during that eight-day debate, senators yelled at one another on the Senate floor and accused Miller of trying to ramrod amendments through. Several attempts to break off debate failed.