ANNAPOLIS -- Maryland Senate leaders are taking a more active role in the abortion issue in an effort to avoid another acrimonious battle, and some predict abortion-rights legislation could be approved in the General Assembly early next year.
"I think pro-choice legislation is going to pass," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Prince George's).
Miller said he hopes a bill could be approved in the Senate and sent to the House of Delegates in January.
With a new session set to begin Jan. 9, even some leading antiabortion legislators appear unwilling to mount a filibuster like the one that disrupted the General Assembly last winter and frustrated the abortion-rights majority.
Miller's direct involvement, along with Gov. William Donald Schaefer's recently stated support for abortion-rights legislation, is viewed as giving advocates the luxury of concentrating on the shape of legislation that will be on the agenda.
Most expect to see a proposal that writes into Maryland law the concepts of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion and banning government interference early in pregnancy. Others, including some legislative leaders, also want to require that parents of minors be notified, in certain cases, when their daughters seek abortions.
Miller, who reportedly got commitments from antiabortion senators not to stage another filibuster before he handed out key committee appointments this week, said he will personally oversee the handling of the abortion bill this time.
When Miller tried to remain in the background last session, the Senate fell into bickering and paralysis during an eight-day filibuster.
Voting blocs in the General Assembly are very similar to those in place last winter. Abortion-rights advocates say they control as many as 82 of the 141 seats in the incoming House of Delegates. Leaders on both sides of the issue say that antiabortion senators still hold 16 seats, enough to stage a filiubuster and halt action in the new 47-member Senate.
But even antiabortion senators say times have changed.
"I don't believe anybody's feelings, beliefs on the issue will have changed," said Sen. Thomas Patrick O'Reilly (D-Prince George's), one of the 16 abortion opponents who staged the filibuster last session.
But he added, "I don't think there is the chemistry there for a filibuster."
Acrimony was abundant in March as the Senate took the first votes in more than 20 years on whether Maryland would continue to ensure women access to abortions.
The bitter debate over abortions produced antisemitic and anti-women remarks that further polarized the issue.
When the legislature couldn't agree, abortion became a central issue in several primary election races.
And although abortion-rights advocates won some high-profile contests in September -- notably knocking off three incumbent senators from the Washington suburbs -- the November general election turned on other issues.
Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman (D-Baltimore), one of the sponsors of abortion legislation during the 1990 session, said she plans to take a backstage role in 1991, leaving the work to people such as Sen. Walter M. Baker (D-Eastern Shore), chairman of the Judicial Proceedings Committee.
"None of us has the stomach for what happened last year," Hoffman said.
In the House, Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg (D-Baltimore) will be one of the abortion-rights leaders.
Rosenberg said he detects a "clear desire" in the legislature to dispose of the abortion issue within the first month.
However, Rosenberg said lawmakers will have to look ahead.
If a law is passed, it could be petitioned to a statewide referendum to be voted on in November 1992.
"We have to see not just what is necessary to pass it in the legislature, but what will get 50.1 percent in the '92 election," Rosenberg said.
Miller said he believes voters would prefer an abortion-rights law that required parental notification. When a group of abortion-rights supporters met here earlier this week with Miller, they discussed a provision that would bypass parental notification if the doctor found the minor to be mature enough to make a decision and give informed consent.
Del. Patricia R. Sher (D-Montgomery), who defeated longtime Sen. Margaret C. Schweinhaut in the September Democratic primary largely because of Schweinhaut's opposition to abortion, said she is not prepared to support parental notification language that could discourage girls from seeking abortions from physicians.
"These kids don't need permission to be sexually active or to go into the hospital to deliver a baby," Sher said.
Much of the early skirmishing over the issue may revolve around interpretations of the elections.
Rosenberg said other issues, notably taxes and recession fears, distracted voters in the general election in ways they did not in the primary.
"When abortion was drawn as the issue in September, the public spoke very loudy," Rosenberg said.
O'Reilly conceded that, either way, the issue of abortion spent a long time in the public eye this summer.
"Each side can argue that the elections meant this or meant that," O'Reilly said. "The citizens did speak out on the issue and let their feelings be known. Those of us who cared to listen had the opportunity to hear the voice of the people."