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Stormy Session Ahead After Veto Of Insurance Bill

Rancor Between Ehrlich, Democrats Is Worsening

By John Wagner and Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, January 11, 2005; Page A01

Yesterday's gathering had all the trappings of a political celebration. With a bank of television cameras capturing the moment, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) stood flanked by a crowd of legislative allies and lab coat-clad doctors, whose insurance woes had prompted him to call an emergency session of the General Assembly.

Yet when he had summoned everyone to the State House to watch him reject the remedy lawmakers sent him for the state's medical malpractice mess, Ehrlich said he couldn't force a smile.

"Nothing would have compared to having a signing ceremony here," Gov. Ehrlich said. (Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)

_____Live Discussion_____
Maryland Senate Minority Leader J. Lowell Stoltzfus (R) will be online today at Noon ET to discuss the upcoming legislative session which begins Wednesday in Annapolis.

"Nothing would have compared to having a signing ceremony here," he said, standing next to a giant leg cast meant to symbolize the "broken" malpractice system. "The easiest thing to do in politics is the easy thing. Always. That's not how we're running this government."

Yesterday's veto sets the stage for an override vote today, which would end a special session that presented itself last month as a rare opportunity for bipartisan unity. Instead, it has deepened the enmity brewing in Annapolis during the two years since Ehrlich took office.

Legislative leaders who had negotiated for weeks with Ehrlich in search of a consensus measure said the veto has hardened perceptions that he is unable or unwilling to work with Democrats.

"I think what it says about the governor is that he is incapable of compromise," said House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel).

The sentiment was widespread among Democrats in Annapolis yesterday, where members of the General Assembly were gearing up for tomorrow's formal start of the 2005 session. While Republicans rallied around the governor, a fractured Democratic Party saw an opportunity to unite against the popular governor in a way that has proved difficult in the past two years.

"The era of Democrats in this state accommodating, appeasing and acquiescing to this governor is over," declared Del. Peter Franchot (D-Montgomery). "This governor has decided he does not want to compromise with us. That's fine. He wants a fight? Well, he's going to get one."

Republican leaders agreed that the meltdown of the special session has damaged relations between the two branches of government, but they blame Democratic lawmakers. Sen. Andrew P. Harris (R-Baltimore County) said the governor had little choice but to issue the veto. He called the legislature's proposal "a band-aid on a gaping wound."

Compromise was in reach, he and others said, until legislative leaders reneged on an agreement with Ehrlich over the malpractice bill just as the special session was starting.

Senate Minority Leader J. Lowell Stoltzfus (R-Somerset) said Senate and House Democrats redrafted or deleted most of the legal changes that had been the basis of the pre-session deal.

"They've been totally unreliable partners in this case," Stoltzfus said. Ehrlich "negotiated in good faith and thought he had an agreement with them. What's the governor supposed to do? I just don't understand why the blame has been put on him."

Democratic leaders say they never agreed to some elements or backed down from their pledge to finance relief for doctors with a tax on HMO premiums.

Regardless of where the blame lies, there was strong evidence yesterday that the state's political leadership has become more polarized than at any time in recent memory. Party leaders traded angry jabs on talk radio and in news releases about the propriety of Republicans' blunt radio advertising campaign aimed at swaying key votes on the override effort.

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