Irate Lawmakers Bolt Chamber In Md. Protest

By Matthew Mosk and Ann E. Marimow
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, April 1, 2006

Republicans in the Maryland Senate unplugged their computers, picked up their belongings and marched out of the chamber yesterday afternoon in protest of a frantic push by Democrats to pass a stack of hotly contested bills.

Infuriated members strode up the marble State House staircase to the offices of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), who applauded them for the rare walkout and declared that four years of "monopoly frustration has come to a head."

The display came on the tensest day of the 2006 General Assembly session, with just 90 minutes remaining for Democrats to get legislation to the governor's desk and still leave time for a future override vote, should Ehrlich choose to veto the bills.

Just minutes before the 5 p.m. deadline, Democrats passed the last in a series of controversial measures, which included a legislative takeover of the board that oversees electricity rates in Maryland, a bill to block a state takeover of 11 Baltimore schools, one to ban state university regents from political fundraising and one to alter election laws to put early voting stations in urban -- and largely Democratic -- precincts.

Other bills, including one aimed at reducing smokestack emissions from coal-fired power plants and one blocking tuition increases at state universities, just missed the deadline. A legislative aide said that when two Senate clerks arrived at the governor's legislative office with bills in hand, they found the doors locked. The clerks slipped photocopies under the doors, but it will be left to lawyers to determine whether that qualifies as delivery.

None of the measures passed smoothly. There was a failed filibuster on the schools bill, a bitter parliamentary challenge of the House speaker on the measure to reconstitute the state's Public Service Commission and a seemingly endless succession of procedural contortions over the others. But it was the highly partisan election measure that prompted the walkout by the dispirited GOP caucus, which holds just 14 seats in the 47-member chamber.

"We know we're outnumbered, votewise. We know we have no control. Now they won't even let us participate," Sen. Nancy Jacobs (R-Harford) said after leaving the chamber. "I'm ready to go home."

Democrats paused briefly after the walkout. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) had an aide ring bells in the cavernous State House foyer to alert them that voting would continue. Then the Democrats passed the election bill on a vote of 29 to 3 as a cluster of the chamber's red leather high-back chairs sat empty.

To many, the walkout was the product of long-simmering unrest between Democrats, who exert strong control over both legislative chambers, and Republican legislators emboldened by the 2002 election of Ehrlich, the first governor from their party in nearly 40 years.

"You did the right thing," Ehrlich told the senators as they huddled in his ornate reception room. "It's a shame it had to happen, but it did. Minority rights have been discarded, overridden and ignored for too long."

Less than an hour after the walkout, Republicans returned to the floor. Miller compared the protest to the theatrics that in past years have arisen on the General Assembly's final day, when even a single member can employ delay tactics that will sink a bill.

"The other side made a determined effort to keep us from getting those bills to the governor's desk," Miller said. "But we had to move them."

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