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Hopes of bipartisan cooperation give way to complete deadlock in the Pa. House

by Stephen Caruso of Spotlight PA |

Democratic Pa. House Speaker Mark Rozzi has recessed the chamber until next month, with no agreement on operating rules.
House Democratic Caucus

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HARRISBURG — The Pennsylvania House officially adjourned Tuesday until late February, almost certainly ending any chance of voters seeing constitutional amendments on their May ballot.

The move by Speaker Mark Rozzi ends a chaotic three weeks that began with the Berks County Democrat’s ascension to the top spot in the chamber and his vow to drop his party affiliation. But those bipartisan overtures quickly hardened into gridlock that prompted Rozzi to schedule a statewide tour to hear from residents about the chamber’s struggles.

Democrats await the outcomes of special elections expected to give them a one-vote majority, while Republicans, facing internal divisions, have unsuccessfully tried to use obscure rules to force the chamber back in session.

Following all of this from afar are advocates for sexual abuse survivors and good-government, who are waiting with a mix of frustration and hope for the lower chamber to actually begin governing.

The House has been stuck in park since January as neither party has gained the traction to approve operating rules that allow committees to form and votes to be held.

Rozzi said Tuesday the chamber will meet again Feb. 27, after three Feb. 7 Allegheny County special elections that Democrats are expected to win, and which would cement the party’s first majority in 12 years.

Throughout the entire, unusual start to the session, Rozzi, a former backbencher elevated to the House’s top post, has been at the center of the storm.

Elected in a GOP-orchestrated compromise, Rozzi initially declared himself independent and pledged to caucus with neither party.

But to Republicans’ dismay, he has declined to change his party registration, and vowed not to consider any legislation until the General Assembly agrees to pass his top priority: a constitutional amendment that would create a two-year window for victims of child sexual abuse to sue over old abuse cases.

Rozzi, who was abused by a priest as a teenager, has said he wants to pass the amendment in time for the May primary — which would require passing it this week.

But on Tuesday, after the House remained divided and the Senate tried to attach unrelated amendments to Rozzi’s priority measure, he seemed to concede it would not happen, and recessed the chamber. The amendment could still be passed and put on any subsequent ballot until 2024.

In the meantime, Rozzi plans to embark on what he’s calling a “listening tour,” saying he hopes that “meeting directly with the people of Pennsylvania and interested organizations will yield solutions to partisan gridlock.”

He is in Pittsburgh today, and will be in Philadelphia Friday.

The lack of action has been another blow to survivors of childhood sexual abuse, whose priority has been caught in legislative limbo.

“At some point in time, there is enough blame to go around,” survivor Cathleen Palm told Spotlight PA. “The bottom line is the dysfunction is bipartisan and bicameral. Most of us don’t have the time to decide if the Republican or Democratic talking points are more damaging.”

For a decade, survivors, including Rozzi, have called for lawmakers to approve the window. But that effort has been blocked by a mix of lobbying, reluctance, and a clerical error by former Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration in 2021.

Meanwhile, as they prepare for a long recess without operating rules, both parties in the House are doing their best to assign blame for the stalemate.

Republicans argue that Rozzi should just agree to the Senate’s three combined amendments, which along with proposed sexual abuse legislation include proposals to expand ID requirements for voting and restrict the governor’s regulatory power.

Democrats, pointing to advocates’ demands, counter that rolling the abuse amendment in with GOP priorities demonstrates the worst of Harrisburg politics, and that voters deserve a clean vote on the measure. They also contend that Republicans have not answered their calls to negotiate.

The delay is to “ensure the House operates fairly for the next 23 months,” according to House Democratic spokesperson Nicole Reigelman.

(Delaying will also give Democrats time to swear in any new members they get in special elections, and likely take over with a functional majority without requiring compromise.)

Rozzi did not reply to a request for comment Tuesday. But as recently as this weekend, he expressed optimism for a deal.

“I remain hopeful that the House and Senate will come together for our survivors of childhood sexual assault,” he told Spotlight PA in a text message.

Republicans attempt a rump session

With perfect party unity, this month Republicans could have rushed their priority voter ID and regulatory amendments onto the ballot. However, that on-paper edge has not worked out.

Internal caucus divisions kept the party from agreeing on a Republican speaker last month, and led to the compromise that gave Rozzi the gavel. But that deal also went haywire.

The agreement was supposed to result in Rozzi becoming a registered independent, according to Republicans. That would have left the House otherwise evenly divided even if Democrats pick up three seats.

However, Rozzi has not made the switch, and has continued to maintain close relationships with his old caucus. He hired a Democratic staffer as his top aide, and top Democratic leaders and staff have frequently gone in and out of his Capitol office.

Rozzi has also refused to call a voting session without a guarantee that the civil window amendment will pass without any unrelated amendments attached, a plea echoed by most survivors, including Rozzi’s onetime Republican ally, state Rep. Jim Gregory (R., Blair).

“The proposed constitutional amendment on creating a two-year lookback window for lawsuits deserves to be on voters’ ballots as a standalone question due to the exceptional amount of time survivors have waited for justice and the egregious error made by the Department of State,” Gregory wrote on Facebook.

Rozzi’s moves have left GOP leaders in a bind: their numerical advantage will likely slip away soon, taking away the chance to pass the amendments or favorable chamber rules.

Meanwhile, leaders have been under pressure from conservatives in and outside of Harrisburg to play hardball.

One rank-and-file conservative, state Rep. David Zimmerman (R., Lancaster), described the Rozzi deal as “a total betrayal of the Republican caucus and the people who sent us to Harrisburg to represent their interests,” in a letter viewed by Spotlight PA.

Zimmerman confirmed to Spotlight PA he sent the letter as a “statement of facts” to constituents with concerns about the speakership outcome, but declined to comment further.

Lacking better options, House Republicans have tried to bring the House back to vote through unusual means.

In an email to his colleagues last week, House Republican Whip Tim O’Neal (R., Washington) asked Republicans last week to sign a letter to the House clerk directing her to schedule a voting session this week.

“Let’s get this letter to the clerk so we can take this fight to the floor next week,” O’Neal wrote.

O’Neal confirmed to Spotlight PA he sent the message Monday, echoing a GOP argument that the chamber needed to get back to work.

“No member, even the speaker, can hijack the process of the House. Could you imagine if [former Republican leader] Mike Turzai were still the speaker and he said ‘no other legislation would run until you all agree to my school voucher billing?’” O’Neal said. “That’s essentially what Mark Rozzi is doing at this point.”

The legality of the petition is unclear.

O’Neal said the House reverts to Mason’s Manual — a oft-used handbook governing committee meetings — without rules, which would allow for such an maneuver. One GOP lawmaker cited a 1921 incident in which the legislature called itself back in, elected a new speaker, and passed a budget. Historians have referred to it as a “rump session.”

Those efforts have led to yet more public squabbling among Republicans — something that was relatively rare during their time in the majority.

One conservative member and state Freedom Caucus member, state Rep. Aaron Bernstine (R., Lawrence), took to Facebook to call out his colleague state Rep. Tom Mehaffie (R., Dauphin) for not signing onto the petition asking for a week of voting session days.

In a statement to Spotlight PA, Mehaffie exhorted his colleagues to choose cooperation over chaos in the coming weeks.

“It is my hope that my colleagues will relinquish short term power grabs so we can once again rely on humility and collaboration to better serve the people who elected us,” Mehaffie said. “I will not use my office to score frivolous political points at the expense of our constituents.”

A House Republican spokesperson did not reply to specific questions on the conflict.

Democrats reject ‘unilateral disarmament’

Democratic sources previously told Spotlight PA that the party offered a closer committee divide to Republicans as part of a power-sharing deal soon after the election. However, that offer was seemingly rebuffed, leading to Rozzi’s ascension and the current deadlock.

In an email, Reigelman claimed that Republicans have also rejected subsequent offers to negotiate the rules.

“Republicans ran the House for 12 years, with little to show for it. House Democrats believe in doing things the right way,” she said.

Meanwhile, Republicans have released their proposed rules, which include a number of changes that would give the minority more power to control the agenda. These include a 13-12 committee divide instead of last-session’s 15-10 divide, an easier process for forcing bills out of committee, and increased transparency measures.

All are changes to policies that benefited Republicans when they controlled the chamber, and that Republicans rejected out of hand when Democrats or good-government advocates previously proposed them.

Republicans’ current rules proposals “reflect the current legislative reality, as they have in the past sessions,” House Republican spokesperson Jason Gottesman said.

The irony is not lost on senior Democrats such as state Rep. Dan Frankel (D., Allegheny), who is eying a chance to set the agenda.

“I don’t think any of us want to give up an advantage,” Frankel told Spotlight PA.

After 24 years of service, he’s lined up to be majority chair of the House Health Committee. Under its former Republican chair, the committee advanced abortion bans and sat on a bipartisan bill that would implement nurse staffing ratios in hospitals.

Frankel declined to specify policies he would pursue as chair, but said he’d prioritize increasing health care access, reducing costs, and leaving “medical decision making to providers and families.”

A one-seat advantage on committees, as Democrats once offered and Republicans now propose, Frankel noted, would require unanimous Democratic support every time, which could also be difficult given the ideological diversity of the Democratic caucus. Instead, he thinks 14-11 would be more appropriate.

“I don’t believe that we ought to be looking at a unilateral disarmament,” Frankel said, adding, “I don’t think my Republican colleagues would ever have given us that kind of benefit.”

There were still a few signs of hope for a compromise before session adjourned. In a statement Tuesday, one Republican member of a bipartisan work group convened by Rozzi said the six-person committee had “coalesced around a first draft of proposed operating rules for a special session” and that a summary had been presented to Rozzi.

“I am confident that we can move forward to start healing the partisan divide and building a better tomorrow,” added the work group member, state Rep. Valerie Gaydos (R., Allegheny).

Rozzi was less definitive, telling Spotlight PA in a text message that he had not been presented with anything and that the group was “having fruitful discussions but that they have not yet settled on a draft.”

(A joint statement from all three Democratic workgroup members added that “we have not yet agreed to, and should not agree to, anything until we have public input.”)

Good-government advocates are optimistic that Rozzi’s planned tour could offer the chamber a rare moment to self-reflect and get its affairs in order by adopting new rules that allow for a truly bipartisan agenda.

“I don’t see this as a breakdown. I see this as a pause — a moment to say, ‘how can we do this better,’” said Carol Kuniholm, executive director of Fair Districts PA, which advocates for a nonpartisan redistricting process.

In an open letter to both parties’ leadership, Kuniholm echoed some of the Republicans’ new suggestions, as well as asked for rules that would require votes on bills that receive bipartisan co-sponsors or votes in the Senate.

The first public meeting on Rozzi’s tour is in Pittsburgh at 6 p.m. today on Carnegie Mellon University’s campus. Another will be held Friday in Philadelphia at St. Joseph’s University. More dates could be announced in the future, Rozzi’s office said in a news release.

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