Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. urged state legislators yesterday to walk away from the divisive issues of abortion restrictions and gay rights this year, saying neither should be taken up until after they get a hearing from the U.S. Supreme Court this spring.
"I don't think we need to address either of those two issues this year," Miller (D-Prince George's) told his fellow senators.
Miller's comments gave the first indication that the State House might avoid a replay of last year's controversy over the two emotionally charged topics, reserving center stage this spring for the equally charged issue of gun control.
But supporters of both measures--a proposed ban on discrimination based on sexual orientation, and a ban on the procedure opponents call "partial-birth" abortion--said they were not dissuaded by Miller's warning. "I feel if something's right, it's right regardless of other considerations," said Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D), who championed last year's gay rights legislation. "We're going to fight very aggressively for that bill."
Miller made his comments on the floor of the Senate yesterday as he announced that he would not add a new member to the influential Judicial Proceedings Committee this year, despite concerns that its current roster of 10 could leave it mired in tie votes.
Miller explained that he was unable to find a legislator willing to switch committee assignments midterm but insisted that it doesn't matter, because he doesn't believe abortion or gay rights should come up this year anyway.
Last year, the Senate approved a bill to ban partial-birth abortions, but the bill failed in the House of Delegates. Meanwhile, the House last year passed Glendening's anti-discrimination bill, but it died in the Senate's conservative-leaning Judicial Proceedings Committee.
"Neither bill passed last year, despite much consternation," Miller noted. Now, he argued, the legislature should wait for guidance from the Supreme Court on whether either proposal could stand up to constitutional challenges.
The nation's highest court announced last week that it will soon hear appeals in cases involving gay rights and partial-birth abortion: one involving Nebraska's attempt to ban the abortion procedure, and another on whether the Boy Scouts can exclude homosexuals.
Miller stopped short of ordering senators not to introduce legislation. Still, he said, "they can push all they want--neither bill is going to go anywhere."
Miller said he personally supports the abortion restrictions. He said he does not firmly believe in the need for a gay rights bill but that he would have voted for its passage if it came to the floor.
Some lawmakers said Miller's warning made little difference anyway: They said that gay rights had no better chance this year, given the makeup of the Judicial Proceedings Committee. They also noted that abortion restrictions would have faced a steep uphill climb at best in the House of Delegates.
But last year's sponsor of the partial-birth abortion ban, Sen. Larry E. Haines (R-Carroll), said he still plans to fight for the measure this year, though he's waiting for a House sponsor to take it up first this time.
He scoffed at Miller's argument that the Senate should avoid the abortion issue while it is pending before the Supreme Court. "For 25 years, it's been before the Supreme Court," he said. "No matter what, we're going to persevere."
If lawmakers heed Miller's call, it means that the Judicial Proceedings Committee will devote most of its energy to Glendening's "safe guns" proposal, which would require built-in locks and other sophisticated safety equipment on all handguns sold in the state.
Sen. Walter M. Baker (D-Cecil), the chairman, said he could not predict how his committee will vote but said the dynamics of the debate would not be changed by having one less person on the committee. "It's always taken six votes to get a bill out," he said. "It's always taken a majority."
CAPTION: Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. is sworn in for another term as Maryland Senate president.