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Md. Stem Cell Bill's Last Gasp

Proponents Couldn't Break Through Senate GOP Filibuster

By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 16, 2005; Page B01

As Maryland lawmakers rushed toward their midnight adjournment Monday, Sen. Paula C. Hollinger asked for a brief break so she could recognize several people who had been sitting up in the gallery for hours.

They were advocates of embryonic stem cell research -- families affected by Parkinson's disease, spinal cord injuries and other debilitating conditions for which the research holds promise. Their lobbying had helped push a bill authorizing state money for the research through the House of Delegates and to the brink of Senate passage.

Sen. Paula C. Hollinger (D) said she'll sponsor another bill for stem-cell research next year.

Hollinger's fellow senators applauded politely -- and then promptly returned to other business. That was all the attention the stem cell bill would get before lawmakers adjourned for the year.

"It was heartbreaking," said Andrea Koshko of Perry Hall, Md., who watched the proceedings with her 5-year-old daughter, Haley, who has juvenile diabetes. "We were so, so close. It was right there, and then it died."

Public debate on the bill during the 90-day General Assembly session had been highly emotional, pitting university scientists and families coping with disease against the Maryland Catholic Conference and others who argue that the research is unethical because it involves the destruction of a viable human embryo.

But it was the private decisions of just a few senators that ultimately led to the bill's quiet demise. Despite intense lobbying, they could not be persuaded to break ranks with those who opposed the research on moral grounds and let the bill move forward for a vote.

"I understand the passion on both sides, but I believe it's a life they would be taking," said Sen. James E. DeGrange Sr. (Anne Arundel), one of the Democrats who was targeted. "This is a moral issue for me."

Those on both sides acknowledged that the votes were there for passage in the Senate if the legislation were allowed to get an up-or-down vote on the floor. That would take a simple majority.

But under Senate rules, a three-fifths vote is required to cut off debate on any issue; otherwise, opponents can literally talk a bill to death.

As the end of the session neared, that threat proved increasingly potent for opponents of the stem cell bill, because a sustained filibuster could have delayed action on dozens of others bills.

Hollinger (D-Baltimore County) had promised Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) that she would produce a list of the 29 senators needed to cut off debate before the Senate took up the issue. She never got the names she needed.

Advocates' attention in the waning days zeroed in on five lawmakers: three Democrats who were opposed to the bill's content but might be persuaded to vote to cut off debate, and two Republicans who had voted for the legislation when it was considered in committee but now appeared to be supporting the Republican-led filibuster out of party loyalty.

Support from just two of the five would have put the count at 29.

Sen. Roy P. Dyson (D-St. Mary's), a practicing Catholic, said he fielded several calls from former governor Harry R. Hughes (D), whose wife, Pat, has Parkinson's disease and whose grandson has juvenile diabetes.

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