Leading Democrats agreed yesterday to probe the firing practices of Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s administration, promising a balanced look at whether the rights of state workers have been violated.

The investigation -- the first of its kind by the General Assembly in three decades -- was announced jointly by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. and House Speaker Michael E. Busch and comes at a time of bitterly divided government in Annapolis.

"It's not going to be a witch hunt, but it is designed to make sure that future generations of state employees . . . don't have to face the same expectation of termination," said Miller (D-Calvert).

The formal launch of the probe, first mentioned in February, drew sharp complaints from Republicans. They said the probe appeared designed to embarrass Ehrlich (R) and questioned whether the legislature is capable of conducting it.

Senate Minority Leader J. Lowell Stoltzfus (R-Somerset) characterized the effort as "absolutely a witch hunt," adding: "We aren't equipped to do this, no question."

Miller said a 12-member committee, consisting of House and Senate members from both parties, would meet in coming months to define the scope of the probe and to deal with such issues as whether to hire additional staff and seek subpoena power.

Miller said the investigation, likely to begin in earnest in the fall, would examine the actions of several Ehrlich aides whom Democrats have accused of unfairly targeting state employees for dismissal.

"These issues are not small," he said, ticking off a half-dozen agencies in which employees have complained about being removed to clear the way for new hires by the Republican administration. Some of those dismissed were longtime workers whose jobs were not directly involved in implementing the governor's agenda, Democrats say.

Busch (D-Anne Arundel) said the investigation also would examine issues related to the stability of the state workforce when the governor's office changes parties.

Paul E. Schurick, Ehrlich's communications director, said that the governor is willing to cooperate with the investigation but that "after five months of screaming and yelling," lawmakers have yet to detail any instance in which an employee's rights were violated or an employee was fired for political reasons.

Schurick repeated an administration estimate that fewer than 300 of the roughly 7,000 employees who serve at the governor's pleasure have been terminated since Ehrlich's arrival in January 2003.

"Certainly this is uncharted territory," Schurick said of the probe. "I've never seen anything like it."

Unlike Congress, the Maryland legislature has no standing investigative committees. Yesterday, lawmakers said they cannot remember a comparable investigation since 1975, when a committee was formed to investigate allegations that Baltimore police were harassing and spying on law-abiding citizens.

Miller drew fire from Republicans yesterday for suggesting that the new probe should be limited to firing practices and not explore hiring by Ehrlich and Democratic governors.

Republicans believe the latter exercise could prove embarrassing for Democratic lawmakers, whose dominance in Annapolis has helped friends and family members win state jobs.

"Of course, he wants to steer it away from there, because it affects him personally," Stoltzfus said.

Thomas V. Miller III, Miller's son, serves on the State Parole Commission, and Melanie Miller, the senator's daughter, formerly worked for the Department of Transportation.

Not probing hiring practices is "ludicrous in my opinion," Stoltzfus said.

Schurick also argued that the scope of the investigation should be broader.

"Limiting the scope only to terminations gives them the ability to parade a dozen disgruntled former state employees before the committee," he said. "It might make good theater, but it doesn't make sense."

Miller, who said his son and daughter were well qualified for their posts, said Republicans were trying to distract attention from the issue at hand.

"It's a Newt Gingrich tactic," Miller said, referring to the former U.S. House speaker. "You deny, you attack."

Lawmakers, who met yesterday to set their off-session agenda, also agreed to a resolution calling on the Ehrlich administration to preserve all documents related to dismissals until the legislative investigation is completed.