Pennsylvania’s House Republicans can hold out functional majority at least until mid-February thanks to vacancies in the Democrats – and they are considering using that advantage to pass several far-reaching constitutional amendments.
The strategy coincides with an attempt by GOP leaders to delay special elections in two heavily Democratic Allegheny County counties as long as the law allows. On Thursday, GOP Leader Brian Cutler (R., Lancaster) tried to officially order May 16 special election dates in those counties.
This is the latest possible date allowed by state law. Democrats immediately criticized the move, saying that even after Democrats won more seats in the midterm elections, Republicans were trying to delay their transition to the minority party so they could “play politics and work their way through extremist politics,” according to a spokesman .
This concern is not just overheated rhetoric.
The group has reservations about plans to use its early lead to send at least two amendments to voters in May 2023, according to rank-and-file GOP lawmakers and lobbyists. The amendments would introduce voter ID requirements and make it easier for the legislature to repeal the regulations.
“It just makes sense,” said one House Republican, who asked to remain anonymous to talk about internal discussions. “We have to run them early because the Democrats wouldn’t do it.”
But the most famous — and most controversial — amendment proposed by Republicans is not in the running for passage. Four GOP sources told Spotlight PA that after the November election backlash, the party likely won’t try to pass an amendment that would guarantee the state constitution does not protect access to abortion.
“The people with whom I participate in the elections remember the election day and think that they are in charge [abortion] a constitutional amendment would be a really stupid idea,” a skeptical House Republican told Spotlight PA.
Speaking to reporters on Monday, Cutler acknowledged that the party’s lead may not last long, but said they will build an agenda regardless.
“It’s going to be a shortened window … so it’s going to make it a little bit more difficult in terms of getting the committees up and running,” Cutler said. “But we’ll work as long as we can.”
Cutler did not respond to specific questions about the amendment, and a Republican House representative referred Spotlight PA to Cutler’s comments.
Democrats got 102 places on the day of the elections – a one-mandate advantage in the 203-member Chamber of Deputies. But the death of one Democratic lawmaker and the resignation of two others to fill higher positions currently leaves Democrats with 99 members and Republicans with 101.
Both parties have claimed the authority to call special elections to fill those vacancies. Democrats scheduled them for February 7. Republicans have scheduled one for the same day and two more for the May primary.
If the Democrats get their way, they will capture the majority in February. If Republicans do, the House will likely split 100-100 at some point this month, preventing most action from either party until May.
The argument is now in court.
Republicans also retained control of the state Senate, which could allow them to rush through legislation in the early weeks of next year’s session before Democrats are likely to pick up 102 House seats and regain the majority.
All three Allegheny County special elections are in districts where Democrats typically win by double digits.
In recent years, Republicans have increasingly turned to constitutional amendments to achieve their policy goals, as Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s veto power has left many of their priorities in limbo.
Amendments must be adopted in the same form by the General Assembly in two consecutive biennial sessions before they are submitted to the voters, who have the final say. They usually say yes.
In early July, the General Assembly adopted a comprehensive bill that included five amendments. In addition to the abortion measures, the package will also:
- require voters to show ID whenever they vote in person, or to include an ID when they vote by mail;
- require annual audits of elections by the state auditor;
- allow the General Assembly to block regulations by a simple majority rather than a two-thirds majority;
- allow gubernatorial candidates to choose their gubernatorial candidate.
The governor has no say in passing amendments, and voters almost always approve them. In 2021, Republicans successfully passed two amendments to strip Wolf of his emergency powers during the pandemic.
A surprise coup by House Democrats appeared to have blocked the passage of the amendment. But the recent uncertainty is opening up, and some rank-and-file Republicans have said they’re willing to use that advantage to get some amendments before voters before May 2023.
Voter ID support is growing
Specifically, every Republican lawmaker Spotlight PA spoke with 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 it help secure elections?”
Expanding voter ID requirements is widely popular among both parties, the poll found. Topper added that if such an amendment “restores confidence” in the state’s voting system, “it could open the door to another deal” on other parts of the election code.
However, if Republicans advance a voter ID amendment, they will face stiff opposition from voting rights groups.
Kadida Kenner, executive director of the New Pennsylvania Project, a nonprofit that registers new voters, said requiring voters to include ID when voting by mail would likely disenfranchise thousands of people who don’t have access to a scanner or printer to vote. creating a copy of an identity card — not to mention those who do not have an identity card.
“We know it’s a popular thing, and most Pennsylvanians would pass a tougher ID law,” Kenner said, “but most Pennsylvanians don’t realize they’re necessarily going to ban voting” — especially in communities of color.
Absent a deal that also expands early voting, automatic voter registration and same-day registration, Kenner said she and her allies will “fight like Dickens to make sure it doesn’t come to a vote.”
Small changes, big consequences
Republicans may also be eyeing an amendment that would give them more of a voice in the state’s regulatory process, which they believe favors the governor’s office.
Since taking office in 2015, Wolff has used the process to limit carbon emissions from power plants, expand oversight of charter schools and nursing homes, and enact LGBTQ nondiscrimination protections. Sometimes these changes were implemented; other times, Wolf has traded a proposal during budget negotiations for something else (such as increased education funding.)
One Republican described support for the regulatory amendment as “not as passionate” as the voter ID amendment.
Still, groups like Planned Parenthood PA see high stakes in the volatile debate over how to approve the new rules.
In a statement, Signe Espinosa, the reproductive health organization’s executive director, said giving the General Assembly more power in the regulatory process could affect access to abortion.
“If this passes, they can and probably will use it to stop regulations that allow clinics to provide abortions,” Espinosa said. “It may not be as clear as the “ban on abortion rights” constitutional amendment, but the end result is the same — erasing the health care rights we’ve had for nearly 50 years.”
Most Republicans interviewed by Spotlight PA said they would not try to advance the abortion amendment, which many blame for abandoning it in the midterms. Access protection abortion was front and center for Democrats in a number of key legislative races they won.
Also, with 101 votes, Republicans would have no room for error, and the three Philadelphia GOP lawmakers who won this year voted against correction in the summer.
“Whatever you do, you have to have unanimous support,” Topper noted. “It obviously limits the things that can move, but that will be up to management.”
The strategy also needs support from Senate Republicans, who introduced the constitutional package.
At a press conference last month announcing the 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’s still early.”
A spokesman for the new administration, which will be led by Democrat Josh Shapiro, did not respond to a request for comment on the possible amendments.
In a statement, House Democratic spokeswoman Nicole Reigelman said “Pennsylvanians across the state are concerned about the mischief” Cutler could start as he controls the state House agenda.
“Given that his group passed the abortion ban and the voter ID amendment late on Friday night just before the summer recess, we know that standard good governance practices do not apply when a Republican leader is in charge,” Reigelman added.
90.5 WESA is partnered with Spotlight PA, a reader-funded collaborative newsroom dedicated to producing responsible journalism for all of Pennsylvania. Read more at spotlightpa.org.