The sound of bells is incessant in the State House these days, a piercing clangor that pulls lawmakers out of the lounges and into the chambers to cast their votes. The final two weeks of the legislative session are beginning, and a touch of frenzy is creeping into the process.
Up until the past week, the 1978 session had been marked by a borderlines and efficiency that has legislative leaders congratulating themselves. But now, the signs of election-year fever are beginning to show.
Sharp, acrimonious insults were exchanged on the floor of the Senate one night last week as an anti-abortion leader unsuccessfully tried to pull a parliamentary trick that would have resulted in the emotional question of abortion-funding coming to a vote while many of his colleagues were out of the room.
On another occasion, Senate President Steny H. Hoyer, who has maintained an unflappable exterior throughout much of the session, became embroiled while he stood at the Senate podium in a heated, whispered argument with a reporter.
End-of-session tension is inevitable here as major issues start to come up just when lawmakers are beginning to feel exhausted. But there is more to it this year. For these next two weeks are the last chance the legislators will have to cast the votes and champion the issues that will propel their fall campaigns.
It was Friday night when the normally decorous Senate nearly plunged into chaos as Sen. John C. Coolahan (D.-Baltimore County) tried in vain to pull off one of the most daring legislative maneuyers in years.
Coolahan, who was leading the opposition to full state funding of abortions for indigent women, was pacing up and down before dinner, realizing that his opponents had the votes to defeat him. Then, suddenly, he went around telling his allies to be sure to return from dinner exactly on time.
He assumed - correctly as it turned out - that many of his opponents would dawdle over their dinners, and he intended to have the issue decided when his forces represented the majority of those senators present.
He almost succeeded. When the Senate reconvened at 8 p.m. with a bare quorum composed mostly of anti-abortion senators. Coolahan moved to indefinitely table and thereby kill a measure to continue full state funding of Medicaid abortions.
When the few pro-abortion senators present realized they were outflanked, they used the time allotted for explaining their votes to excoriate Coolaham - and to delay the final recordation of the votes until their allies could return to defeat the Coolaham move.
"I'm absolutely shocked that he would try such a cheap ploy," said Sen. Julian Lapides (D-Baltimore), who paced back and forth behind his desk during the remainder of the episode sputtering insults at Coolohan.
An obviously piqued Steny Hoyer angrily said, "If this motion passes, no senator can expect to be treated with equity in the future."
In this bitter rejoinder to this, Coolahan exploded with some of te strongest words heard in the Senate in years. "If you do't like it, tough. I'm not down here to kowfow to you," he said, speaking to Hoyer. Then, to his other colleagues: "You're a bunch of high school kids and don't deserve to be down here. If you don't like that you can call me every name you want. Don't go crying your little tears about cheap shots."
Coolahan's steam of invective, coming after his opponents had delayed the vote recordation long position. He had broke one of the legislature's cardinal rules without winning his point.
The chief rule, lawmakers who consider themselves power brokers here agree, is simple: "Don't lose your cool." Losing tempers means losing friends, and in the legislature you need friends to get your way. It is said here that no single issue is worth burning bridges with an ally.
But election-year pressures do strange things to politicans. THis year, even a seasoned pro like Paul Weisengolff (D-Baltimore), who usually manages to maneuver through intractable issues with the ease of a Houdini, violated this basic tenet.
Testifying against an administration proposal to build a state prison in his Baltimore district, Weisengoff managed to offend several members of the House committee considering the proposal. These delegates eventually voted against Weisengoff's position.
During his remarks, Weisnegoff offended supporters of Acting Gov. Blair Lee III by a accusing the executive of subterfuge and political opportunism. He referred to a committee member's comments as a lot of baloney."
And later that evening, after he had lost his fight in committee, Welsengoff sat moodily near the bar at the Hilton Hotel where many legislators stay, glaring at his opponents and tossing out bitter epithets.
It is a measure of tension when a veteran like Weisengoff starts to violate the unwritten rules. It is even more a measure of the tension when a senate president who is also a gubernatorial candidate starts letting his anger show.
Last Thursday, as the Senate was rejecting large chunks of the ethics legislation which he had attaced his name to, Steny Hoyer's generally genial demeanor disappeared. As a wire service reporter approached a Baltimore senator to ask about the difference between two amendments, Hoyer told the reporter to "stop lobbying the bill."
A bitter whispered argument ensued, after which the reporter returned to the press table an Hoyer turned to Sen. Edward T. Conroy, who was standing on the other side of the podium, and whispered, "You tell that son-of-a - . . ." Hoyer's voice dropped so low he could not be heard after that.
That same evening, there were several attempts to postpone discussion of the massive ethics measure covering financial disclosure by public officials. Many senators admit they find some of its provisions distasteful, but few want to oppose an ethics law for politicians only seven months before an election and six months after the political corruption conviction of Gov. Marvin Mandel.
Postponement of the discussion, however, could have been crippling to the legislation, which would then have been jumbled in with the hugh number of other bills still awaiting Senate consideration. Hoyer was not going to see that happen, so he put his foot donw, roughly.
"How long is this going to go on?" asked one senator at about 9 o'clock Thursday evening, after the measure and amendments had been debated for four hours.
"It's going to go on until we complete this," Hoyer answered.
Later in the evening, Hoyer regained his genial disposition, laughing along with his colleagues when one senator proposed - then withdrew - an amendment that would have made the ethics bill's provisions apply to members of the citizens' lobby, Common Cause, which has pushed hard for the measure.