The news you need & none of the noise. Sign up for our newsletters »
The Capitol

Pa. Republicans fight to prolong House majority and pass far-reaching constitutional amendments

by Stephen Caruso of Spotlight PA |

House GOP Leader Bryan Cutler wants to delay special elections, a move that will keep Democrats from seizing a majority.
Commonwealth Media Services

Spotlight PA is an independent, nonpartisan newsroom powered by The Philadelphia Inquirer in partnership with PennLive/The Patriot-News, TribLIVE/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, and WITF Public Media. Sign up for our free newsletters.

HARRISBURG — Republicans in Pennsylvania’s state House could hold a functional majority until at least mid-February thanks to Democratic vacancies — and they’re considering using that advantage to pass a handful of far-reaching constitutional amendments.

The strategy coincides with GOP leaders attempting to delay special elections in two heavily Democratic Allegheny County districts as long as legally allowed. On Thursday, GOP leader Bryan Cutler (R., Lancaster) attempted to formally order May 16 special election dates for those districts.

That’s the latest possible date allowed under state law. Democrats immediately criticized the move, saying that even after Democrats won more seats in the midterms, Republicans are trying to delay their switch to the minority party so they can “play politics and ram through extremist policies,” according to a spokesperson.

That concern is not just overheated rhetoric.

According to rank-and-file GOP lawmakers and lobbyists, there are murmurs within the caucus of plans to use their early advantage to pass at least two amendments to voters in May 2023. The amendments would impose voter ID requirements and make it easier for the legislature to override regulations.

“It just makes sense,” said one House Republican who asked for anonymity to talk about internal discussions. “We have to run them early because Democrats wouldn’t.”

But Republicans’ most prominent — and most controversial — proposed amendment is not in the running for passage. Four GOP sources told Spotlight PA that after November’s electoral backlash, the party will likely not attempt to pass an amendment that would ensure the state constitution doesn’t protect abortion access.

“The folk I run with remember Election Day and think running the [abortion] constitutional amendment would be a really stupid idea,” a skeptical House Republican lawmaker told Spotlight PA.

Speaking to reporters Monday, Cutler acknowledged that the party’s advantage may not last long, but said they’d build an agenda regardless.

“It’s gonna be a shortened window … so that’s going to make that a little more challenging in terms of getting the committees up and running,” Cutler said. “But we’ll work like that for as long as we can.”

Cutler did not respond to specific questions about the amendments, and a House Republican spokesperson referred Spotlight PA to Cutler’s comments.

Democrats won 102 seats on Election Day — a one-seat advantage in the 203-member chamber. But the death of one Democratic lawmaker and the resignation of two more to take higher offices currently leaves Democrats at 99 members and Republicans at 101.

Both parties have claimed the authority to schedule the special elections to fill those vacant seats. Democrats scheduled them for Feb. 7. Republicans scheduled one for the same day and two more for the May primary.

If Democrats get their way, they will seize the majority in February. If Republicans do, the chamber will likely have an even 100-100 split at some point that month, which would forestall most action from either party until May.

The dispute is now in court.

Republicans also retained control of the state Senate, which could allow them to rush passage of legislation in the first weeks of next year’s session before Democrats, in all likelihood, win 102 House seats and take back the majority.

The three Allegheny County special elections are all in districts that Democrats regularly win by double digits.

The amendment agenda

Republicans have increasingly turned to constitutional amendments to advance their policy goals in recent years as Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s veto pen has stymied many of their priorities.

Amendments must be passed in identical form by the General Assembly in two consecutive two-year sessions before heading to voters, who have the final say. They usually say yes.

In early July, the General Assembly passed an omnibus bill that included five amendments. In addition to the abortion measure, the package also would:

  • require voters to show ID whenever they vote in person or include proof of ID when they vote by mail;

  • require annual election audits by the state auditor general;

  • allow the General Assembly to block a regulation through a simple majority, rather than with a two-third majority;

  • allow gubernatorial candidates to select their own lieutenant governor candidate.

The governor has no say on the passage of amendments, and voters almost always approve them. In 2021, Republicans successfully passed two amendments to strip Wolf of his pandemic-era emergency powers.

Democrats’ surprising flip of the House appeared to have blocked the amendments’ path forward. But the recent uncertainty presents an opening, and some rank-and-file Republicans have said they are willing to use that edge to get some amendments in front of voters by May 2023.

Support for voter ID grows

In particular, every Republican lawmaker Spotlight PA talked to expressed support for the proposed voter ID amendment.

“It’s been talked about for so long,” said state Rep. Jesse Topper (R., Bedford). “What do the people want? Will that help secure elections?”

Polling has found expanding voter ID requirements to be broadly popular among both parties. Topper added that if such an amendment “opens up the trust” in the state’s voting system, “it might open up the door to another deal” on other parts of the election code.

However, if Republicans advance the voter ID amendment, they’d face stiff opposition from voting rights groups.

Kadida Kenner, executive director of the New Pennsylvania Project, a nonprofit that registers new voters, said that the requirement for voters to include proof of ID when voting by mail would likely disenfranchise thousands who don’t have access to a scanner or printer to create a copy of their ID — let alone those who don’t have an ID to begin with.

“We know it is a popular thing and most Pennsylvanians would pass a stricter ID law,” Kenner said, “but what most Pennsylvanians don’t realize is they will definitely suppress the vote” — particularly in communities of color.

Absent a deal that also expands the franchise with early voting, automatic voter registration, and same-day registration, Kenner said she and her allies would “fight like the dickens to make sure this doesn’t reach the ballot.”

Small changes, big consequences

Republicans may also be eying the amendment that would give them more say over the state’s regulatory process, which they argue favors the governor’s office.

Since taking office in 2015, Wolf has used the process to limit carbon emissions from power plants, expand oversight of charter schools and nursing homes, and formalize nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ people. Sometimes those changes were implemented; other times Wolf traded the proposal during budget talks for something else (like increased education funding.)

One Republican characterized support for the regulatory amendment as “not as passionate” as the voter ID amendment.

Still, groups such as Planned Parenthood PA see high stakes in the wonky debate over how to approve new regulations.

In a statement, Signe Espinoza, executive director of the reproductive health organization, said that giving the General Assembly more power in the regulatory process could impact abortion access.

“If this passes, they can and likely will use it to end the regulations that allow clinics to provide abortion care,” Espinoza said. “It may not be explicit as the ‘no right to abortion’ constitutional amendment, but the end result is the same — an erasure of the health care rights we have had for nearly 50 years.”

Most Republicans Spotlight PA spoke to said they will not attempt to advance the abortion amendment, which many blame for their midterm shellacking. Protecting access to abortion was front and center in for Democrats in a number of key legislative races that they won.

Also, with 101 votes, Republicans would have no margin for error, and three suburban Philadelphia GOP lawmakers who won reelection this year voted against the amendment over the summer.

“Whatever you run needs to have unanimous support,” Topper noted. “That obviously limits the things that can move, but it’ll be up to the leadership team.”

The strategy would also require buy-in from Senate Republicans, who introduced the constitutional package.

At a news conference last month announcing their new leadership team, Senate President Pro Tempore Kim Ward (R., Westmoreland) offered no commitments.

“We can sit down with the new administration and talk about these constitutional amendments,” Ward said, but “we haven’t gotten that far yet. It is early.”

A spokesperson for that incoming new administration, which will be helmed by Democrat Josh Shapiro, did not return a request for comment on the possible amendments.

In a statement, House Democratic spokesperson Nicole Reigelman said “Pennsylvanians across the state are concerned about the mischief” Cutler could start if he controls the state House agenda.

“Given that his caucus ran the abortion ban and Voter ID amendment late at night on a Friday immediately preceding summer recess, we know that standard practices of good governance don’t apply when the Republican leader is in charge,” Reigelman added.

WHILE YOU’RE HERE… If you learned something from this story, pay it forward and become a member of Spotlight PA so someone else can in the future at spotlightpa.org/donate. Spotlight PA is funded by foundations and readers like you who are committed to accountability journalism that gets results.

This new year, pledge to support vital investigative journalism that strengthens our democracy.