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GOP caucus a hot session topic

THE STRENGTH and effectiveness of the Republican caucus in the House of Delegates -- which enters the session under new leadership -- was a hot debate topic last week.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch, the chamber's Democratic leader, is unimpressed with the minority party, which holds 43 seats in the 141- member House.

For most of the past year, Busch has been telling anyone who would listen that Republican delegates abandoned Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. last year by voting as a bloc against the state budget.

The spending plan contained tax and fee increases, some of which Ehrlich supported and others he opposed. Busch stepped up the criticism last week during a Democratic luncheon in Annapolis.

"We have an administration that in my mind can't get support from their own party," Busch said. "They couldn't vote for the cuts. They couldn't vote for the governor. It was the caucus that couldn't."

The last line inspired laughter and applause, and immediately got back to the GOP.

"I wasn't as much upset as I was amused," said Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell, the minority whip from Southern Maryland. "His comments played into the apparent obstructionist tone leading up to the session."

Republicans immediately set out to prove their value.

On Wednesday, the opening day of the session, GOP leaders surprised many by complicating Democratic plans to override some of Ehrlich's vetoes. In addition to the bills that the Democrats targeted, Republicans asked that a $135 million corporate tax bill also be overridden.

O'Donnell said he wanted a recorded vote on the tax bill because Busch and other top Democrats criticized Ehrlich for vetoing it last year. Some Democrats, he said, would have had difficulty voting for it again.

"Either way, you would have seen a united Republican caucus and a split Democratic caucus," O'Donnell said. "If [some Democrats] had stayed with the liberal-left leadership, the folks back home might not have appreciated it."

Democrats parried the Republican override effort by delaying a vote until the 83rd day of the session. But O'Donnell said the caucus got its message across and would play a more important role than ever this year.

"We believe we are the caucus that can, and does," he said. "Only obstructionists are those that can't. ... Our hand is out, but it seems like it may get slapped away."

Medical liability reform off to big-spending start

Money is flying in the fight over medical liability reform, which promises to be among the most expensive campaigns in Annapolis this year.

The Maryland State Medical Society, also known as MedChi, launched a television ad campaign last week to raise awareness of the issue.

The society is running commercials in the Baltimore and Washington markets featuring sympathetic physicians who say they had to abandon parts of their practice because of the high cost of malpractice insurance.

"I've brought thousands of babies into the world, but the cost of medical liability insurance has forced me to stop delivering them," says Dr. David L. Zisow of Bel Air in one version of the commercial. "I have to say good-bye to my patients."

MedChi executive director T. Michael Preston said his group has spent about $30,000 to broadcast the message, which encourages viewers to contact state senators. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a lawyer, has said he will oppose changes in liability limits.

MedChi wants the limit for "pain and suffering" awards in malpractice cases lowered from $635,000 to $350,000 to help keep insurance rates down. Many doctors saw insurance premium increases of 28 percent in the past year, and rates for hospitals went up more.

Preston would not say how much his group is prepared to spend on the issue. "This is new to us," he said. "We're going to see how this plays out, and see what kind of response we get."

Marylanders could soon be bombarded with information on the issue. According to published reports, trial lawyers are prepared to spend $1 million on their side. "We're nowhere near their league," Preston said.

Bereano greets legislators with legal-limit gifts

When lawmakers arrived in Annapolis last week for the beginning of the General Assembly session, each found a gift waiting -- courtesy of Bruce C. Bereano.

The colorful lobbyist, whose practices over the years have helped rewrite Maryland's ethics laws, sent legislators a statuette of an American eagle in flight -- its talons poised as if to grasp at two American flags.

A sticker on the base said "Made in China."

In a letter accompanying the gifts, Bereano said he was sending them "to commemorate this new year of the presidential elections, and our continuing unity and resolve as a nation to fight terrorism and maintain homeland security."

The lobbyist, who was convicted in 1994 of mail fraud, also reassured legislators that the unsolicited gifts cost less than $20 apiece -- having been bought in bulk -- and thus were legal under state ethics laws.

Bereano did not return a telephone call seeking comment.

Ehrlich set on baby's name, but first lady is not so sure

With first lady Kendel Ehrlich due to deliver the couple's second child in mid-March, the governor says the family has settled on names: a boy would be named Joshua, Ehrlich said (his pick); while a girl would be called Peyton (her pick).

But maybe the governor is just wielding his executive authority. Kendel Ehrlich, it seems, does not agree that the decisions are set. "There are several names in the running, and everyone will just have to wait until the baby arrives to find out," said Meghann Siwinski, a spokeswoman for the first lady.

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