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February 7, 2006

General Assembly Journal 2006 - Part 5 (2)

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

Last Thursday morning the Republican Caucus decided to drop the petition calling for an amendment to the state's Constitution defining marriage as a union between one man and one woman, even though the signature of Del. Joan Cadden (D., Anne Arundel) was flawed. (See yesterday's Journal entry for the preliminaries in this struggle.)

The media was alerted, most notably the Baltimore/DC television stations. Talk about risk taking, this was flying by the seat of our pants without a net!

As we walked onto the Chamber Floor at 10 A.M., a bank of TV cameras took up the left hand wall. When Speaker Michael Busch (D., Anne Arundel) entered from his office to the right, I saw him look directly over at the news flock.

A normal workday in the House almost never rates TV coverage. If broadcast journalists are present, it's usually because of something the Speaker has either done personally or at least controls. This surprise showing must have set off his internal sensors; either that or a Republican privy to the outcome tipped him off.

We convened for a normal day of business, with the Pledge and Invocation, the previous day's journal entries, and a guest introduction. At this point, where the Speaker would normally call for Committee Reports, he recognized the majority leader. Kumar Barve (D., Montgomery) who then recessed the House until 11A.M. Friday.

The members, both Republicans and those Democrats not aware of the maneuver, sat dumbfounded for several minutes after Speaker Busch left the Chamber. I overheard several members comment "What just happened?"

This unprecedented retreat signaled the recognition that the majority party leadership had lost that most precious resource, CONTROL. Once again, House Republicans has used the very Rules developed and implemented by the majority party to properly and legitimately raise a policy matter.

The week before, when the GOP caucus tried to amend the House rules to force every bill to receive a vote, Delegate Barve stood on the Floor in his role as majority leader to state that the committee process is sacrosanct.

He explained, in great detail and with flowery rhetoric, that the existing rules work well and have withstood the test of time. One of his most interesting and compelling arguments was that instead of forcing a vote on every bill, there are already methods, under the Rules, for accomplishing the same outcome.

Delegate Barve, a well-respected member of Speaker Busch's leadership team, lectured the House and argued that members could use a petition from committee as a way to get an important issue to the Floor.

In an example of the hypocrisy and tyranny of a state legislature dominated too long by one political party, when the Republicans try to follow the leadership's advice one week later, the Rules change again to facilitate the interests of the hypocritical majority.

With the unexpected recess, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee scheduled a voting session to deal with the marriage amendment bill. In that session, Democrats offered an amendment to the bill to allow that marriage was between a man and a woman but that no jurisdiction in Maryland could prohibit civil unions.

That move was designed to force Republicans to either vote to send a bill to the Floor that would legitimize civil unions or to kill their own bill after a year and half of trying to sell the idea.

With the amendment in place, all 27 members of the Judiciary Committee, including the bill's sponsor, Del. Don Dwyer (R., Anne Arundel), voted against the bill. The Judiciary Committee reported the bill out unfavorably.

In the end, the only vote taken on the marriage issue was a procedural vote on a motion to substitute the committee's unfavorable report with the original, un-amended bill. The motion for substitution was offered by a conservative Democrat, David Rudolph (D., Cecil).

Following a lengthy debate, 61 members voted to support the substitution motion. That number is notable because only 42 Republicans voted in favor, meaning 19 Democrats also voted to support allowing the House of Delegates to hold a full up or down vote on the marriage amendment.

The Western Maryland Delegation (Carroll, Frederick, Washington, Allegany, and Garrett counties) overwhelmingly voted for the motion to substitute the original bill for the unfavorable committee report. Even several Democrats voted for the motion, except Del. Galen Clagett (D., Frederick).

Delegate Clagett was the only member who opposed the motion, based on the fact that he supports the committee process. He also stated that he felt the courts should decide this question, and that the appeals process should be allowed to play out.

Now the battle will shift to the political front. The reason that Republicans wanted a vote and Democrats used every trick in the book to deny a vote is simple. If the 2006 ballot listed a constitutional amendment to define marriage as between a man and a woman, conservative voters would flock to the polls to cast that vote.

In so doing, they would also likely vote for more conservative candidates for state offices. The evidence is clear that Republicans would benefit directly from the flood of motivated voters. In every state where that question was on the ballot in the 2004 presidential election, George W. Bush was a clear and convincing victor.

Time will tell whether a vote on a procedural motion will carry the same weight with voters, but rest assured that religious and conservative organizations will use that procedural vote to highlight members who stymied the effort, while gay advocacy groups will use the reverse strategy to target members who support a traditional definition of marriage.

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