The debate over slot machines in Maryland begins anew this week, when the state Senate launches discussions on the third iteration of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s gambling plan.

But the real excitement comes later, after House Speaker Michael E. Busch and leaders in the House of Delegates settle on a strategy for the gambling issue.

For two years, the Senate has approved versions of a slots-at-racetracks proposal, and it is expected to do so again this year. A hearing on the governor's bill, intended to aid the horse racing industry and generate money for school operations and construction, is scheduled Wednesday.

"I anticipate it will pass with very little fanfare, for the third year in a row," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a Calvert County Democrat.

Similar legislation has died twice in the House. A year ago, the House Ways and Means Committee rejected the bill on the final day of the session.

Since then, Ehrlich and other Republicans have repeatedly criticized Busch and House Democrats for obstructing the governor's wishes, despite a flurry of activity last summer when leaders came close to putting slots on the ballot as a referendum issue.

Opinion polls show that more than 50 percent of Maryland voters favor legalizing slot machines, although support drops when they are asked whether they would want them near their homes.

Busch has suggested that the timing of House decisions will be different this year.

"We will try to have a timely hearing, and eventually a vote," Busch said. "But I can't promise you it comes out" of committee.

Busch has not said whether he wants the House to vote on a version of a plan he advocated last year - publicly owned slots facilities along interstate highways - or on a version closer to the Ehrlich plan that could die on the House floor.

The governor's plan would allow 15,500 slot machines at six locations - four at racetracks and two along the Interstate 95 corridor.

With Ehrlich saying that he does not expect a different result for his legislation this year, and Busch not indicating that he has dropped his opposition, it is unclear how much attention slots will get.

For now, things are relatively quiet. Gambling interests spent $2.3 million on lobbying during the 2004 session but have not been much of a presence at the State House this year.

The lobbying is "not as intense as you would think," said Del. K. Bennett Bozman, an Eastern Shore Democrat and member of the Ways and Means Committee, which will vote on the bills. "People are still drawing lines in the sand, figuring out what all the bills are going to say."

'A unified industry'

Beneath the surface, however, industry representatives are laying the foundation for approval. And heavyweight players, including the family of Peter G. Angelos, which is negotiating to buy Rosecroft Raceway in Prince George's County, are waiting to emerge.

Last week, racing interests and track owners released a joint plan to improve horse racing in Maryland - with and without slots. Racing industry in-fighting has contributed to defeat in the past, many have said.

"We're a unified industry," said James L. Galiano, vice president of operations for the Maryland Jockey Club. "We've given a lot of thought to how the industry can grow."

Today, the Maryland Horse Breeders Association plans to introduce its version of gambling legislation, which would authorize 16,500 machines at 10 sites. The Pimlico, Laurel and Rosecroft tracks would get 2,500 slot machines each; Ocean Downs in Worcester County and two other licensed but unbuilt harness tracks would get 1,000 each; and 1,500 machines each would go to four nontrack sites.