ANNAPOLIS – Conflict over legislation to fund stem cell research heated up on the floor of the Maryland Senate Thursday as Republican opponents of the measure complained of changes Senate Democrats made to the bill’s language after it had already been debated and voted on by a legislative committee.
Republican leaders, who have vowed to filibuster the stem cell bill, protested an announcement by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, D-Prince George’s, that he would bring the legislation for debate to the Senate floor next Tuesday.
They argued that the bill should instead be sent back to committee for discussion and another vote because the changes to the bill were made after the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee had debated and voted on it.
“The process of the Maryland Senate has been thrown to the wind,” said Senate Minority Whip Andrew P. Harris, D-Baltimore County, in an interview after the Senate adjourned Thursday. “I’m aghast at all of this.”
Miller, however, in an interview after the Senate session, said that Harris’s complaints were just the first of many procedural objections opponents of the bill would raise in coming days as they attempt to defeat the stem cell legislation.
He said that legislative aides who help craft bills are given the freedom to make minor changes in wording after a committee votes on a bill, and that the practice was not uncommon.
Harris said this was news to him.
“I have never seen anything like this in my time in the Senate,” he said.
He cited several changes to the wording of the bill which he considered to be substantive, including the re-introduction of a clause that said embryonic stem cell research needed to be carefully considered because it “raises significant ethical and policy concerns.”
He also questioned a change in the wording used to refer to stem cells that could be used for research under the legislation.
In the version of the bill that was voted on by the committee, the words “unused product” were used to refer to embryonic and adult stem cells. The version that was presented to the full Senate uses the word “material” instead.
“What does ‘material’ mean?” Harris asked. “I don’t know.”
He said the changes to the bill warranted further committee debate and that it was Miller’s responsibility to send it back to committee.
Miller said Harris and other opponents of the bill are passionate in their opposition to stem cell research and will do everything in their power to stop its passage.
“This is just the opening shot,” he said. “When they start to filibuster on this, they will talk and talk and talk, and pull out the medical journals. If we could just isolate the fringe elements, we could make progress on this bill.”
Miller said he believed the changes made to the legislation after the committee voted on it were minor and did not warrant further committee debate. He said the bill can be debated further after he brings it to the Senate floor.
During the Senate session Miller announced he would introduce the bill Friday, but delay full debate until next Tuesday. He hopes to bring the bill to a vote by Wednesday.
Harris said Miller and other Democratic leaders were postponing debate on the legislation to give themselves time to undermine the threatened Republican filibuster. “They are trying to shake loose some votes with it,” he said.
Harris claims to have 20 senators willing to join in a filibuster. In order to end a filibuster – that is, to cut off endless debate on a bill – supporters of a measure must have a three-fifths majority. That means opponents of the bill need at least 19 of the 47 members of the Senate to sustain the filibuster.
Miller said the stem cell issue will probably not be resolved until end of the session even if Senate Democrats manage to defeat the threatened filibuster, because the General Assembly will have to reconcile differences between the Senate and House versions of the legislation.
The House of Delegates is scheduled to vote on its version of the bill Friday. The bill is expected to pass the House, based on the results of voting Wednesday, when opponents of the House bill attempted but failed to introduce amendments to weaken it.
Both bills are intended to direct state funding to embryonic stem cell research, a field that many experts say holds great potential for finding cures of a variety of diseases, including diabetes and Parkinson’s disease. But many religious conservatives believe that life begins at conception and that using embryos for research is immoral.