Busch A Thorn In Side Of GOP

Maryland House Speaker Michael E. Busch has used an array of surprise tactics to outflank his political adversaries, including Gov. Ehrlich.
Maryland House Speaker Michael E. Busch has used an array of surprise tactics to outflank his political adversaries, including Gov. Ehrlich. (By Michael Robinson Chavez -- The Washington Post)

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By Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 7, 2006

Just before the final floor debate in last week's battle over same-sex marriage in Maryland, Minority Whip Anthony J. O'Donnell (R-Calvert) glumly predicted that his party was about to lose a key vote that would have helped get the issue on the ballot.

"Right on script," he said after the bill went down.

In the Democrat-controlled House of Delegates, that script was crafted by Speaker Michael E. Busch (Anne Arundel), the affable county parks and recreation administrator who took over the chamber 3 1/2 years ago and has turned it into a graveyard for some of the state GOP's most pressing initiatives.

To Republican leaders, he's a "tyrant." To Democrats, he's the much-needed foil to the state's first Republican governor in a generation. But people on both sides of Maryland's partisan divide agree that Busch has emerged as one of the state's most powerful House speakers in recent memory.

"He has maintained firm control of the House at a time when debates are very partisan, and yet he's still been able to move the party's agenda forward," said Del. Pauline H. Menes (D-Prince George's), who joined the House in 1967 and is its longest-serving member. "He's mastered the job in a way I can't recall ever seeing."

Like a football coach with a knack for trick plays, Busch has produced a series of wins for House Democrats using some outlandish parliamentary maneuvers. For three years, he thwarted efforts by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) to pass his signature initiative: legalizing slot machine gambling.

Last year, Busch helped orchestrate the outcome of a special session that Ehrlich had called to push medical malpractice changes. It had started as Ehrlich's bid to aid doctors, but it was Busch who helped craft a proposal that the doctors liked even better. The tables had turned, and it was the Democrats' plan that passed over Ehrlich's strong objection.

And last month, even before a Baltimore Circuit Court ruling triggered the Republican push to bring a vote on a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, Busch was planning for a confrontation on the highly emotional subject.

Last month, during the first full week of the 2006 General Assembly session, Busch pushed through a rule in the House that would make it harder for Republicans to bring such a proposal to the floor. Then he began plotting a path that would let moderate Democrats voice their opposition to same-sex marriage without allowing such a measure to pass and land on the November ballot. Failure, he believed, would hurt the party by driving up Republican turnout on Election Day.

Busch said he spent the session's opening weeks "like a duck; above the surface, everything looked calm. Below, I was paddling like crazy."

The debate over same-sex marriage came to a crescendo last week. At a reception, Busch said, he overheard one delegate say that Republicans were planning a surprise attack. They had gathered signatures to petition the marriage bill right to the floor.

Armed with the intelligence, he waited until the moment before O'Donnell was ready to offer the petition, and swung down his gavel to adjourn Thursday's session. "He stuffed us!" O'Donnell shouted as Busch headed for the door.

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