Insiders say Republican Gov.-elect Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. expects to have an easier time in the House of Delegates, where his old pal Michael E. Busch is speaker, than in the Maryland Senate, where that cagey partisan Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. holds sway.

But there are signs that precisely the opposite may come true during the General Assembly session that opens next week.

Exhibit A: Miller, a conservative Democrat from Prince George's County, strongly supports the idea of raising new revenue by legalizing slot machines, the cornerstone of Ehrlich's plan to balance the state budget. Busch, a progressive Democrat from Anne Arundel County, has vowed to lead the fight against slots and is threatening to block any bill that does not have the support of "every single Republican" in the House of Delegates.

Exhibit B: After his election as speaker last month, Busch appointed a leadership team that consolidates power among liberals from Baltimore, Montgomery and Prince George's counties, the only jurisdictions where Ehrlich lost the vote in the governor's race to Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. Miller, meanwhile, has kept conservatives in key leadership roles even as the election tilted Senate Democrats as a whole to the left.

Exhibit C: Last month's meeting of the Spending Affordability Committee, where Senate members battled the House over spending limits for the 2004 budget.

The House side, led by Appropriations Committee Chairman Howard Pete Rawlings (D-Baltimore), argued that the budget should grow by as much as 3.5 percent over last year, drawing stinging criticism from H. Furlong Baldwin, a citizen advisory member of the Affordability Committee and a close adviser to Ehrlich.

"This is quite an ambitious number. There's nothing in the tea leaves that conjures that up," Baldwin said. "I don't think it's the real world."

The Senate side, led by Budget Committee Vice Chairman Patrick J. Hogan (D-Montgomery) and outgoing Sen. Robert R. Neall (D-Anne Arundel), argued for 2.5 percent growth, saying higher spending would be irresponsible in the face of the state's looming fiscal crisis.

In the end, the Senate side prevailed with the support of the lone House Republican on the spending affordability panel. The body voted to restrict growth in state government to its lowest level since the panel was created 20 years ago.

That should be good news for Ehrlich, who has said repeatedly that he will balance the budget by cutting spending rather than raising taxes. But the vote also suggests that Busch's House of Delegates may be less inclined than Miller's Senate to share Ehrlich's goal.

He's Got Game

If Ehrlich can't win respect on the House floor, he is threatening to take it on the basketball court.

"Tuesday night basketball is back, and I'm playing," Ehrlich announced recently after speaking to students and faculty at Goucher College.

Apropos of absolutely nothing, Ehrlich suddenly announced to reporters that he has "drafted myself as the No. 1 draft choice of the Maryland state troopers." Then Ehrlich immediately began talking trash about a man likely to be one of his fiercest opponents, legislative hoops aficionado Del. Robert A. Zirkin (D-Baltimore County).

"I have challenged Zirkin, and we will take Zirkin down low," Ehrlich said. "He's done."

Zirkin is among the most enthusiastic participants in Tuesday night basketball games during the legislative session, most of which are held in the St. John's College gymnasium not far from the State House.

Told of Ehrlich's claims, Zirkin laughed loudly.

"Unless Ehrlich has gotten a lot better since the last time we played, he's going to need 10 guys on his team in order to beat us," said Zirkin, who claims to have demolished Ehrlich's congressional team during a charity bout two years ago.

"In the history of Maryland politics, there has never been a governor with a worse jump shot than Bob Ehrlich."

Lining Up at the Gate

Magna Entertainment Corp., the Canadian horse racing conglomerate that recently bought Pimlico and Laurel Park racetracks, has signed up a new lobbyist, Paul A. Tiburzi, a partner with Piper Rudnick LLP in Baltimore.

Magna needs a top-notch influence peddler to bend lawmakers' ears during the upcoming legislative session, with horse racing and the related issue of slot machine gambling expected to take center stage. In November, Magna purchased a majority interest in the Maryland Jockey Club, which owns the state's two biggest racetracks.

Joseph A. De Francis, whose family had controlled the Jockey Club and remains a minority shareholder, is hanging on to his longtime lobbyist, Alan M. Rifkin of Annapolis.

Staff writer Craig Whitlock contributed to this report.