Capital Notebook


GOP caucuses back Steele campaign

Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele greeted members of the state's House and Senate Republican caucuses - who officially endorsed his campaign for U.S. Senate yesterday during a quick midday news conference at the City Dock in Annapolis - with big kisses on the cheeks for the women and handshakes for the men.

"Family," he said, arms outstretched as they applauded his arrival.

The backing from more than 50 General Assembly Republicans comes after a rough stretch for the Steele campaign. He recently lost his campaign manager and communications director and made waves when, in front of an audience of Jewish leaders, he compared embryonic stem cell research to experiments done by Nazi doctors.

GOP leaders showed yesterday that they're standing by their candidate.

"I think he is the one candidate who can unify Maryland," said Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, an Eastern Shore Republican and the Senate minority leader.

"He's the best man for the job, hands down," said Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell, the minority whip from Southern Maryland.

Steele thanked the group, calling its support an honor. "They've always been there for me, and I've tried to be there for them," he said.

"Let's have an honest, open debate about the direction of our state," he said.

The endorsement from the 14-member Senate caucus was unanimous. O'Donnell said only one member of the 43-member House caucus has decided not to endorse Steele: Del. Robert A. Costa of Anne Arundel County.

Jennifer Skalka

Bills on smoking, 'flush tax' fail

A House of Delegates committee yesterday voted down a ban on smoking in restaurants and bars, dealing the proposal its fourth consecutive defeat in the legislature.

Another committee defeated a measure that would have exempted septic system owners from the $30 annual Chesapeake Bay Restoration Fund fee, better known as the "flush tax."

Advocates of the smoking ban said it would protect workers from secondhand smoke, but the measure faced strong opposition from restaurant and bar owners who worried it would hurt business.

Smoke Free Maryland Coalition lobbyist James Browning said ban supporters will try again next year. "It's inevitable," Browning said. "It's just a question of [legislators] finding the will to stand up to the bar and restaurant industry."

The flush tax exemption came in response to an outcry from rural residents who objected to paying into a fund designated principally for cleaning up wastewater treatment plants. But opponents of the bill said that septic systems contribute to pollution in the bay and that their owners should also pay for the cleanup.

Andrew A. Green

Duncan protests drug decision

Montgomery County is asking a federal court to overturn a decision by the Food and Drug Administration preventing the county from reimporting prescription drugs from Canada as a cost-saving move for residents.

County Executive Douglas M. Duncan said yesterday that the FDA's rejection of the Montgomery County request was based on politics.

"As we all know, the Bush administration has totally politicized the FDA," Duncan said in prepared remarks announcing the lawsuit. "Decisions are no longer made based on science or public health, but rather on politics. And that's just plain wrong."

The lawsuit argues that the Medicare Prescription Drug Improvement and Modernization Act of 2003 allows the establishment of drug reimportation programs. The suit says the federal denial - which came in November - was "arbitrary, capricious and an abuse of discretion" because other cities are importing drugs without a waiver and are not being sanctioned. The General Assembly is also considering statewide Canadian drug proposals.

David Nitkin

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