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Miller pursuing the votes to keep filibuster at bay

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Eight blurry days and nights of hell.

That's how Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller remembers the eight-day filibuster waged in 1990 by senators opposed to an abortion-rights bill.

Now, with the threat of a filibuster looming over a bill to fund embryonic stem cell research, Miller says he won't put the measure on the floor until he is assured that there are the 29 votes needed to shut off debate.

"It was ugly," Miller said yesterday. "People were talking about the Holocaust. I don't want to see that ever again."

With little over a week left in the session, senators on both sides of the issue hope they won't have to descend into the poisoned atmosphere of a filibuster, a legislative tactic used to extend debate and either quash or amend a bill.

It was a messy scene in 1990, with bleary-eyed senators dozing on sofas in the lounge and emotional debaters invoking Nazi Germany in making their arguments against abortion.

"It was pretty rough," recalled Sen. Ida G. Ruben of the 1990 filibuster. "Some people just get carried away when it comes to an emotional issue. We just don't have time for this."

At issue this time is legislation that would funnel state funds to embryonic stem cell research, now restricted on the federal level. A bill to provide $23 million a year from the state's cigarette restitution fund starting in 2007 cleared the House of Delegates on Monday.

The Senate bill was amended in committee Tuesday, leaving the amount undetermined and making adult stem cell research also eligible for grants. That amended bill, which goes back to the original committee for approval, could reach the Senate floor as early as tomorrow.

Opponents vow to call for extended debate. Neither side will say how many votes they have.

"We're just about there," said Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, sponsor of the bill, about whether supporters have the 29 votes to end a filibuster. "I lived through an eight-day filibuster, I'm not interested in that again."

But Sen. Andrew P. Harris, the minority whip, said he continues to see strong bipartisan opposition to the bill.

"For the people for whom this is a life issue, it doesn't make any difference," said Harris, linking embryonic stem cell research to abortion, euthanasia and the Terri Schiavo case.

Harris said he wasn't sure that the bill would even make it to the floor, given the fact that the 90-day session is inching toward an end.

"I'm not sure that the Senate is willing to bottle up hundreds of bills to spend days on this issue," said Harris. "But I think this issue rises to the significance where it could be a very extended debate. ... We'll do it all day and all night."

Though prohibited in the House of Delegates, filibustering is allowed in the Senate, where the president sets the rules. That includes when quorum or cloture votes are held, and when or if those engaging in the filibuster may break for a few hours.

Cloture - a vote to end debate and the filibuster - once required a two-thirds vote, or 32 of 47 senators. That number was lowered to 29 last year.

Filibusters have had a mixed history in the Senate. The 1990 filibuster over abortion ended with the Senate passing two contradictory bills, only to see them killed by a House committee. But the filibuster cost four senators their seats later that year. A year later, the Senate passed the same abortion bill that sparked the filibuster.

In addition to the abortion filibuster, senators engaged in an eight-day filibuster over a Baltimore subway in 1976 and one over building a stadium in 1987.

Since 1990, two shorter filibusters have occurred over tobacco issues. In 1998, a filibuster lasting less than a day failed to kill a bill to lower fees to the law firm handling a suit against tobacco companies. A successful three-day filibuster in 1999 reduced a proposed cigarette tax.

As number-crunching continues over the stem cell research bill, senators are hoping for the best but bracing for the worst.

Sen. Philip C. Jimeno, an Anne Arundel County Democrat who is staunchly opposed to the stem cell research bill, was one of the senators who participated in the 1990 filibuster. To him, a vote for cloture is a vote in support of the bill.

"Relationships were damaged," Jimeno said of the 1990 debate. "Some senators lost their seat over that. It was a very emotional and spiritual time for us. But I don't think any of us that participated in the 1990 filibuster regretted what we did or why we did it."

Former Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, who sponsored the 1990 abortion bill with Hollinger, described the filibuster as "the worst experience of my life."

"The attacks became personal, the whole atmosphere was poisoned," she said. "I find it hard to believe that anything could rise to the horrible experience of the abortion filibuster."

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