Assembly faces year of retrenchment, heavy issues Prompt action promised on issue of abortion rights


ANNAPOLIS -- 1990 began with lobbying on the abortion issue, followed by filibustering on the abortion issue and ending with campaigning on the abortion issue. And now, after all that, the General Assembly convenes to find it still hasn't settled the most emotional question on any recent agenda.

But this year, says Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Prince George's, things will be different. This time, he says, there will be no contentious filibuster, no surprises, no unresolved debates.

The lead sponsors of last year's Senate bill in support of abortion rights -- Barbara A. Hoffman, D-Baltimore, and Paula C. Hollinger, D-Baltimore County -- have been replaced by men who are members of the Senate leadership.

And the Senate president says he's ready with a plan to move the emotional issue quickly through the Senate and into the House of Delegates, where House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., D-Kent, promises equally prompt action.

"I intend for it to be the first major issue the Senate takes up," Mr. Miller said. And before January ends, he predicted, the legislature will have passed new legislation that would allow women to choose abortion without any government interference until the point in pregnancy when a fetus might be able to survive outside the mother -- about 24 weeks into the pregnancy.

Quick approval would mean the volatile abortion question would be resolved before the legislature has to wrestle other major issues, such as the budget. It also would mean that the abortion issue would be traveling a very different road through the legislature this year from the road it took in 1990.

As the General Assembly convened last year, Gov. William Donald Schaefer was refusing to say where he stood on the issue. Mr. Miller was confident that abortion would not be an issue of any importance in the 1990 session. But advocates of abortion rights insisted otherwise.

They introduced a measure meant to continue most abortions here even if the U.S. Supreme Court overturned its 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision, which guaranteed the right to abortion.

When the abortion-rights bill came to the Senate floor in mid-March, opponents blocked a vote with a filibuster that lasted eight days -- until they won a compromise that allowed passage of practically contradictory bills.

The convoluted package was killed within 24 hours in the House.

"It was eight days of pure hell for me," Mr. Miller said last week. "It was like a veteran going through a war. I don't think you ever stop reliving it. And I don't feel any of the senators who went through that will ever forget it."

Last fall, in an announcement deliberately timed after the primary election, Governor Schaefer came down on the side of abortion rights. He said that while he did not personally favor abortion, he would resist any attempt to restrict a woman's right to the procedure in Maryland.

Senate President Miller says he will not allow a repeat of last year's unsettled abortion debate. That pleases many advocates of abortion rights. But some groups fear that Mr.Miller is so eager to be done with the issue -- and so anxious to avoid another filibuster -- that he might be too eager to compromise. They fear he might accept a compromise requiring parental notification before a minor may have an abortion.

Mr. Miller says that clause, reassuring to many legislators, is "not a big giveaway." But lobbyists for such groups as the Maryland affiliate of the National Abortion Rights Action League and Planned Parenthood of Maryland see any restrictions on an adolescent's right to abortion as an infringement on a woman's rights.

"It restricts access to abortion to very vulnerable people, people who don't vote," said Cindy Hoffman of Maryland NARAL.

Mr. Miller says the provision, included in last year's abortion-rights bill, will be included in the legislation he supports this year. He shrugs off the criticism of the advocate groups, whom he views as single-issue zealots removed from the realm of political reality. "They're well-intentioned, well-meaning people. They've got a point of view. They don't have a vote on the Senate floor," he said. "Our job is to determine the will of the people and to pass a bill. I think we can do it in a way they will be extremely happy."

Senator Hoffman and Bebe Verdery of Planned Parenthood of Maryland said they will work to kill any measure that includes a parental-notice provision.

On the other side of the issue, some of the leaders of last year's filibuster did not survive the elections.Sens. Francis X. Kelly, D-Baltimore County, and S. Frank Shore and Margaret C. Schweinhaut, both Montgomery County Democrats, were defeated by abortion-rights senators. But Patricia Kelly, a lobbyist for the Maryland Catholic Conference, points out that three new senators -- Larry Haines, R-Carroll, Habern W. Freeman Jr., D-Harford, and Christopher McCabe, R-Howard -- all have opposed abortion.

She said that lobbyists working to defeat any abortion-rights bill "haven't firmed up our strategy yet," adding that she "wouldn't rule out" another filibuster. While many abortion-rights legislators seemed to be left exhausted and discouraged by the 1990 filibuster, abortion opponents were invigorated by the eight days of debate. "It left them strengthened," she said.

Yet, some senators who joined in the filibuster last year say the chemistry isn't there for a repeat. The issue has been argued about all year. Legislators do not have to worry about elections facing them this fall. The economy has risen up to become the new, critical concern.

"This coming session, I don't see a filibuster at all, and I certainly don't have any intentions of joining in a filibuster," said Sen. Thomas P. O'Reilly, D-Prince George's.

Last year, when confronted with an issue many senators had insisted would not arise, the tactic worked, Mr. O'Reilly said. But he added, "There comes a time when it should be voted on and the majority should rule, and that's the system we have."

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