Maryland's House of Delegates is poised to give final approval Wednesday to Gov. Martin O'Malley's plan to redraw the state's eight congressional districts, but not before lawmakers engage in a final showdown over the controversial map.
Despite objections over how the new map treats minority voters in the Washington suburbs, the measure has sailed through this week's special session of the General Assembly without significant opposition or delay. Republican House leaders said they plan to offer a robust debate Wednesday, even if it appears Democrats have enough support to advance the plan.
"I would strongly disagree with the fact that if you think you don't have the votes, let's just move on and not have the debate," said Del. Anthony O'Donnell, the House Republican leader from Southern Maryland. "Part of the creation of the legislative record is the debate."
Debate progressed quickly Tuesday in the Senate, which passed the redistricting proposal on a 33-13, largely party-line vote. The only Democrat to vote against the measure was Sen. C. Anthony Muse of Prince George's County, who has said he is exploring a run for U.S. Senate in 2012.
The proposed map would pack Democratic voters into the Western Maryland district long held by Republican Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, creating an opportunity for Democrats to control seven of eight members of the state's congressional delegation. Some critics say mapmakers accomplished the goal by splitting blacks, Hispanics and Asians into multiple districts, diluting their voting power.
"We all want to strengthen our party," Muse said on the floor. "But why must it always be strengthened at the expense of the very people who have been the party's backbone, particularly in the past 10 years?"
Republicans in the House expect to offer three proposals to change the map, O'Donnell said. A handful of Democrats plan to offer an alternative proposal supported by Rep. Donna F. Edwards, a Prince George's Democrat who has become one of the most vocal critics of O'Malley's proposal.
None of the amendments is likely to pass.
A handful of Montgomery County lawmakers said earlier in the week they were uncertain they'd support the plan — but as days passed, support for O'Malley firmed.
Del. Susan Lee, a Democrat, spoke against the map at a news conference in Rockville last week because it takes Edwards, who is black, out of Montgomery. But on Tuesday morning, Lee said she'd support the governor's plan, even though she felt it was not perfect.
Unlike most legislation in Annapolis, the plan will need an "extraordinary majority," or 85 votes, to pass in the House. The threshold means the bill can clear the chamber if all but 13 Democrats vote for it — assuming all Republicans oppose it.
If the House approves the plan Wednesday without alteration, it would head to O'Malley for his signature.
At a committee hearing that presaged Wednesday's debate in the House, Democrats pushed back against the litany of criticism from Republicans — that the proposal is overtly political, that it weakens minority voting power and that it jams dissimilar communities into the same district.
"We need to get out of this sense of likemindedness that only people who think like me or live in the area that I live or do the things that I do can represent me," said Rep. Dereck Davis, a Prince George's Democrat.
As passage of the proposal appeared increasingly more inevitable, murmurs of a challenge in federal court grew. O'Malley administration officials have expressed confidence that the map would stand up to judicial review, but Republicans said they are more skeptical.
"I guess we'll see in court," said Sen. E.J. Pipkin, an Eastern Shore Republican.
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