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Trump election shaped tone, substance of Maryland General Assembly session

President Donald J. Trum
President Donald J. Trum (Associated Press)

In a normal year, the partisan jab on the floor of the Maryland Senate would have drawn only eye rolls. A Democratic senator used the ceremonial introduction of guests to slip in a reference to suspected Russian meddling in the presidential election.

But like much in politics since the election of President Donald J. Trump, this was not a normal year in the Maryland General Assembly.

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The perceived swipe at the Republican president last week had Sen. Steve Waugh seething in his seat. So when the offending Democrat walked by, the Southern Maryland Republican popped up to give him a verbal thrashing.

"It boiled my blood," Waugh said later. "I pretty much gave it to him between the eyes."

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Concern about the new president and his Republican majorities in Congress pervaded the Democrat-led General Assembly's work this year, coloring debate and helping to set the agenda.

The Democrats passed three resolutions and at least six new laws in response to Trump's policies or plans, empowering the attorney general to sue the federal government and passing the nation's first law to protect Planned Parenthood from federal budget cuts.

"We think about it every day," Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said. "Every day, every bill, we think about what's happening on Capitol Hill."

The 90-day session ends Monday. To date, lawmakers have approved resolutions expressing "sharp disagreement" with moves by the Trump administration and Congress to repeal the Affordable Care Act and opposing Trump's plan to make "drastic cuts" to budget of the Chesapeake Bay cleanup program.

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Democrats forced the repeal of five long-standing calls for a federal constitutional convention, out of concern such a gathering now would be dominated by forces loyal to the new president.

The new focus alienated state Republicans. Democrats gave so many floor speeches about the president that one Republican dubbed them "Trumpertantrums."

"It's an obsession of the legislature this year," said Senate Minority Leader J. B. Jennings. "The Democrats have focused a lot of their energy on Trump."

Democrats say they feel morally obligated to defend Maryland against a White House they don't just disagree with, but view as an unprecedented threat.

The sense of crisis, they say, has been unifying.

"President Trump's actions have brought Democrats together in a way I've never seen Democrats work together before," Sen. James Rosapepe said. "Democrats see real dangers to the values that we share."

Rosapepe, the Democrat who was on the receiving end of Waugh's tongue-lashing, said national politics didn't weigh so heavily on the legislature under other Republican presidents — certainly not when he was a delegate at the end of the Reagan administration.

"Donald Trump is not Ronald Reagan," said Rosapepe, who is from Prince George's County.

The emphasis on Trump, political analysts said, replaced jockeying around the 2018 gubernatorial election and crowded out debate on some perennial issues, such as proposals to legalize marijuana and pass an aid-in-dying law.

"Donald Trump ended up sucking the oxygen out of the room," said Todd Eberly, a political scientist at St. Mary's College.

Even bills that might not seem at first glance to be related to the change in party control of the White House were colored by the election.

Del. Kumar Barve, the chairman of the Environment and Transportation Committee, said environmentalists could thank Trump for the landmark ban on fracking that Gov. Larry Hogan signed into law last week.

Outlawing the gas drilling technique was a long-sought goal of environmental activists that had proven politically elusive — until this year.

"If Hillary would have won, I would not have passed the fracking ban," the Montgomery County Democrat said. With Clinton in the White House, Barve said, he would have trusted the federal government to aggressively enforce federal environmental laws.

"Now we can't," he said.

Mileah Kromer, a political scientist at Goucher College, said focusing on Trump gives Maryland Democrats fresh ammunition to attack Hogan, a Republican.

In Maryland, social issues that have helped motivate party voters to the polls — gay marriage, gun control, the death penalty — are largely settled.

"It's not that Democrats don't believe" in these measures to counter Trump, she said. "But it's also very strategic."

Hogan said Democrats in the General Assembly wasted their time during the session.

"I hate to give them political advice — they've been around a lot longer than me," Hogan said. "But it didn't seem like it was a very productive 90 days for them.

"They promised before the session their entire focus was going to be on politics and trying to tie me to Trump and hurt me on my election chances next year, and I think they've failed miserably."

Hogan, who declined to endorse Trump in the election last year — he said he wrote in the name of his father, former Rep. Lawrence Hogan — largely avoided talking about the new administration.

He expressed his position on the proposed repeal of the Affordable Care Act in private meetings at the White House. Instead of signing or vetoing bills to protect funding for Planned Parenthood and giving the state attorney general money to create a team of anti-Trump lawyers, Hogan simply let them go into law without his signature.

After many hours of debate, committee hearings and news conferences devoted to the president, the impact of many of the anti-Trump measures is unclear.

Democrats created commissions to monitor whether federal health care or banking policies are changed and recommend actions. A bill still pending would shore up funding for public broadcasting in Maryland if federal money is cut back.

One bill that looked as if it could carve out a clear departure from federal policy was watered down dramatically as the legislature entered its final days.

The Trust Act was originally designed to sharply limit the degree to which authorities in Maryland could cooperate with federal immigration agents.

But to get it through the House, lawmakers agreed to grandfather in counties that have or are seeking arrangements to formally cooperate with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. And to clear the Senate, lawmakers stripped a provision that would direct local authorities to disregard federal orders to hold people suspected of violating immigration law unless they had a warrant.

Sen. Bobby Zirkin, the chairman of the Judicial Proceedings Committee, which is handling the bill, called Trump a "wack job." He said the General Assembly was right to try to reassure immigrants, but the measure had to be carefully balanced.

"It's abhorrent, the things that are coming out of his mouth on multiple fronts," the Baltimore County Democrat said. "But we need to be careful about what we do to protect the public also."

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The measure that might have the greatest impact was the move to grant Attorney General Brian Frosh broad authority to sue the federal government and fund a squad of five lawyers to take on the work starting next year.

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Republican states adopted similar efforts under President Barack Obama. But Frosh, a Democrat, said how he'll use the new powers will be different, because Trump is different.

"I think it was partisan warfare during the Obama administration," he said. "I think if you could give truth serum to a lot of Republicans about the stuff the Trump administration has done, they're as concerned about it as we are."

For Republicans, though, some of the Democrats' efforts have been gratuitous. House Minority Leader Nic Kipke pointed to the health care commission bill as particularly troubling. It shouldn't have been controversial, he said, but it contained a preamble praising the Affordable Care Act that left Republicans unwilling to vote for it.

Kipke said Democrats' focus on Trump has contaminated Annapolis with the "toxic" style of politics that predominates in Washington, something he says his party avoided during the Obama presidency.

"We didn't bring in Obamacare debates here," he said. "We didn't push our party politics over the last decade."

The discussion will continue into the session's final day Monday, when lawmakers take up final debate on Democrats' late push to adopt in state law the federal internet privacy regulations that Trump recently stopped from going into effect.

Sen. Michael Hough, the Frederick County Republican who coined "Trumpertrantrum," said few of his colleagues were early Trump supporters — Hough himself chaired Sen. Ted Cruz's primary campaign in Maryland.

But the backlash against Trump has led at least some to rally around him. Hough now displays photographs of himself with the president in his Annapolis office. He calls it an act of rebellion against the incessant anti-Trump rhetoric.

"To say it's growing old is an understatement," he said.

Baltimore Sun reporter Pamela Wood contributed to this article.

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