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Senate Democrats showing signs of fracture

In a rare showing of discord among the Senate Democrats, almost half recently signed a letter seeking a more unified approach to policy discussions and leadership selection.

The letter, and a response from Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, both of which were obtained by The Sun, hint at fractures in the party that controls the Senate by an almost three-to-one ratio.

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Some Democratic lawmakers also have expressed misgivings about the Senate majority leader, appointed by Miller, as well as confusion over how their caucus is run. And some appear to be preparing for Miller's eventual departure as their leader.

"We believe a more active and formal Senate Democratic Caucus would promote cooperation and member engagement," the letter from 16 of the Senate's 35 Democrats says.

They wrote that they want to establish clear procedures for electing caucus leaders, better communicate about legislation and hold regular caucus meetings, stating that the House Democrats and Republicans in both chambers "meet regularly to discuss major policy issues and strategies."

Miller, who in January began his 25th year as Senate president, responded with a letter stressing "collegiality" and an "open-door policy." He did not seem pleased with the letter from the group.

"Letters distributed in a petition type of approach can cause immediate divisiveness in the Caucus and often achieve the opposite result of the intended purpose," Miller wrote. "... The signing of a letter on generic stationary to our appointed Caucus Chair without any prior complaint, correspondence or even simple conversation with us is indeed disturbing."

Since the initial letter and response Jan. 26, the Senate Democrats have agreed to meet once every two weeks, though some said that schedule predated the angst. But some senators who signed the letter said in interviews Monday that they hoped more changes would be on the way.

"Mike's not going to be here forever,' said Sen. Paul Pinsky, a Prince George's County Democrat. "And we need to have a clear understanding of what happens next. Right now the rules are so loosey-goosey -- it doesn't benefit anyone. We'd have better buy-in if everyone adopts some rules."

Sen. Brian Frosh of Montgomery County, declined to comment on why he signed the letter, saying it is "self-explanatory."

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One of the chief complaints appears to be that there is no clear procedure for how the majority party chooses a Senate president and other leaders. Miller, who represents Prince George's and Calvert counties, was freshly elected to another four-year term in November and has been president every year since 1987. He's such a fixture that a Senate office building in Annapolis bears his name.

In his response letter, Miller noted that the procedure for selecting Senate leadership is a "long-standing" practice. After the caucus elects the Senate president and president pro tem -- Sen. Nathaniel McFadden of Baltimore has served in that role since 2007 -- Miller goes on to personally select the majority leader, caucus chair and committee leaders.

This year, he chose Sen. Catherine Pugh of Baltimore as caucus chair and Sen. Robert Garagiola of Montgomery County as majority leader. Some say they'd like the caucus, rather than the president, to fill those positions.

Several senators said they view Garagiola, who toppled an incumbent Republican to win his seat in 2002, as too conservative to represent the majority party. This year, however, Garagiola has introduced more left-leaning legislation such as same-sex marriage and an increase in the minimum wage.

Garagiola said Monday that he viewed the letter signed by 16 of his colleagues as the product of new members and "impatient" veterans. Many of the new members were delegates, and the House Democratic caucus meets weekly. And some of the veteran senators may have forgotten that the first year of the term typically involves fewer caucus meetings, he said, as lawmakers assemble their agendas for the four-year term.

He said he supports the idea that the Senate president can select leaders without the caucus voting. "Whoever the Senate president is, it's good to be able to put your team in place. Any Senate president should have a lot of discretion in that area."

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He added that he thought Miller's choice of committee and caucus leaders "is a cross section reflective of the entire body."

As for talk of how to elect the next president, Garagiola said he thought his colleagues were "getting a little ahead of themselves."

Senate Democrats aren't alone. The 12-member Republican caucus also has endured strife this year. Sen. Allan Kittleman of Howard County resigned his post as minority leader after his support for civil unions led to discomfort among fellow Senate Republicans.

Sen. Nancy Jacobs of Harford and Cecil counties eked out a narrow win to succeed Kittleman. Her caucus voted for her over Frederick County Sen. David Brinkley.

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