Pa. Senate session devolves into shouting as GOP repeals cash assistance

The state Senate voted Wednesday to repeal a small cash assistance program for the poor — but before it happened, the session devolved into a loud, chaotic argument.

The Pennsylvania State Capitol is seen in this file photo. (Tom Downing/WITF)

The Pennsylvania State Capitol is seen in this file photo. (Tom Downing/WITF)

The state Senate voted Wednesday to repeal a small cash assistance program for the poor — but before it happened, the session devolved into a loud, chaotic argument that leaders say briefly derailed ongoing budget negotiations, and which many members called the worst in their memory.

The bill at issue — which scuttled General Assistance for the second time since 2012 — was designed by Republicans to tie Democratic Governor Tom Wolf’s hands.

It’s unclear what he’ll do with it.

The minute the measure was called up Wednesday afternoon, a group of protesters with the Poor People’s Campaign and other groups broke out in chants denouncing it, attempted to unfurl a banner in the Senate chamber, and were promptly ejected.

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One of the activists was Leon Tyer, a former General Assistance recipient who describes himself as having “every kind of condition you can name,” including HIV and schizoaffective disorder.

He said repealing the program feels needlessly cruel.

“We have to struggle every day,” he said. “These people come in here in this opulent place wearing new clothes every day, hair done, brand-new car, and there’s people out in the street dying.”

Once Tyer and his fellow demonstrators were barred from the Senate, the process resumed. But it quickly grew even messier.

Democrats had filed a number of amendments designed to carve out exceptions to the General Assistance repeal that would keep different groups of people covered–for instance, people in drug rehabilitation and those waiting for disability payments.

It was a tactic they’d tried before in committee.

But after considering one amendment, intended to preserve the program for certain domestic violence victims, the Republicans who control the chamber motioned to return to the previous question–a procedural tactic used to ignore amendments on the chamber floor.

When Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman — the Democrat who presides over the chamber–tried to pause the vote, GOP Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati grabbed the gavel and, amid shouts from Democrats, called for it to proceed.

Fetterman said he had been attempting to find a resolution between the two parties.

Scarnati later said Fetterman was “refusing to follow the rules of the Senate” and that “as the President Pro Tempore of the Senate … I took the rostrum in order to keep rules in place.”

He and other Republicans cited a section of Mason’s Legislative Manual — a rulebook followed by many state legislatures, including the Pennsylvania Senate — that says when a presiding officer like Fetterman “refuses to put a motion that is properly before the body, the proper procedure is to select, at once, a temporary presiding officer to put the motion to vote.”

Democrats, led by Minority Leader Jay Costa, walked out.

“I’ve never seen anything like that happen at all,” Costa said of Scarnati grabbing the gavel. He said the amendments his caucus offered were “reasonable, responsible, thoughtful” and that he was dismayed his members were not allowed to offer them.

Corman noted that he had offered to let Democrats speak in defense of General Assistance if they agreed to withdraw their amendments.

But, Costa said, “it’s something we simply couldn’t agree with…Our members were adamant about wanting to make certain they had the opportunity to present their amendments, speak on their amendments, vote on their amendments, and also speak on final passage of this reprehensible bill.”

The situation only devolved further when session resumed.

Republicans called the repeal vote again, but Fetterman instead allowed Montgomery County Democrat Katie Muth to read a letter from a General Assistance recipient.

Jake Corman, the GOP Majority Leader, was infuriated.

“Mr. President you are becoming a partisan hack,” he said, yelling over Muth, who raised her voice in return. “This is your job. Do your job Mr. President. Do your job.”

Still shouting, his voice breaking from strain, Corman added that “never in my career in the Senate has the presiding officer ignored the rules — the rules that we all voted on unanimously.”

Fetterman called the vote.

The bill passed 26 to 24, with no Democratic support and two GOP senators breaking ranks to oppose it.

The entire episode had been extremely unusual for the Senate, a chamber that is typically more collegial than the larger, more ideologically diverse House of Representatives.

But the argument still wasn’t over.

In a press conference, GOP leaders said the clash over chamber rules had–at least temporarily–derailed ongoing budget negotiations.

“This was all planned, from the guests in the gallery to the press conference out here to the lieutenant governor working with the Senate Democrats,” Corman said. “This is about them ambushing this issue … in my 20 years here, the worst day of the Senate.”

Costa maintained nothing was orchestrated.

Scarnati added, after the blowout he appealed to Wolf to talk with Costa and Fetterman, and Wolf agreed. Afterward, Scarnati said, Fetterman “handed me the gavel and asked me to preside the rest of the day.”

“Not often do I walk across to the governor, to ask the governor to get involved,” Scarnati said.

A spokeswoman for Fetterman says all the actions he took were “in an attempt to maintain decorum.” She didn’t comment further.

A spokesman for Wolf did not respond to a request for comment.

Leon Tyer, the General Assistance recipient who protested on the Senate floor, said he resents that the repeal of the program felt, at the end of the day, like a procedural issue.

“It feels like ‘I got mine, you worry about yours,'” he said. “It feels so corrupt, it’s like it crawls on your skin. You just want to get out of here.”

Senate Leaders said despite the setback, they still expect to finish the budget before the end of the week. They have already said they support the primary spending bill the House passed Tuesday, as does Governor Wolf.

If they’re able to wrap up the remaining funding bills as planned, they too will get out of Harrisburg; likely until session resumes in the fall.

WHYY is one of over 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic justice. Follow us at @BrokeInPhilly.

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