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Tension during Pennsylvania’s special House session threatens bipartisan hopes

The special session focusing on childhood sexual abuse survivors may signal trouble ahead.

  • Sam Dunklau
Shown the is Pennsylvania House of Representatives in session at the Pennsylvania Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa., Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2023.

 Matt Rourke / AP Photo

Shown the is Pennsylvania House of Representatives in session at the Pennsylvania Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa., Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2023.

The Pennsylvania House is meeting this week for a special session aimed at helping survivors of childhood sexual abuse. So far, the meeting has brought weeks-long tension between Republicans and Democrats to the fore.

Lawmakers occasionally use special sessions to zero in on a pressing policy topic. In the 1990s, Republican Gov. Tom Ridge called one to address crime, which yielded sweeping bills that increased criminal penalties. A 2006 special session gave birth to the Taxpayer Relief Act, which changed the taxing authority school districts have over local property owners. 

This special session, scheduled through the end of this week, is about two things: helping childhood sexual abuse survivors get more state court access, and shaping what the House will look like over the next two years with Democrats in control.

Earlier this month, the party officially took control of the chamber after more than a decade. They’ve wasted no time leveraging that newfound power.

“We are not budging from this special session until we get what the victims have been asking us for over a decade to bring home,” declared Rep. Maureen Madden (D-Monroe). 

People who were sexually abused as children and their advocates have long asked the state to open a two-year legal window that would let survivors sue their attackers if the statute of limitations in their cases ran out. The idea is among the recommendations a grand jury made in a 2018 report that showed 300 Roman Catholic clergy abused more than 1,000 Pennsylvania children over decades. 

Tuesday’s proceedings yielded two bills that would do that: one would incorporate a two-year window into state law, while another would authorize a state constitutional change via voter referendum.

Both parties support the underlying idea, which means the House will probably approve one or both of the measures by week’s end. They face an uphill battle in the state Senate, where the Republican majority has tied their fate to the House’s willingness to consider things like stricter voter ID rules.

The House has approved a two year window several times before, most recently in 2021. One version of the proposal nearly went before voters that year, but was derailed after the Department of State under former Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar failed to advertise the upcoming vote.

This time, Democrats are using procedural tactics to speed up the process, which has drawn Republican ire and caused tensions to flare. 

The House approved rules along party lines that limit debate speakers to five minutes and require at least two thirds of lawmakers, instead of a simple majority, to approve any changes to a bill during the special session.

Minority Leader Bryan Cutler of Lancaster County argued those rules are designed to stifle his party. He and others have been protesting Democratic control for weeks, and repeatedly used procedural motions Tuesday that irked the majority.

“This kind of heavy-handedness with a one-seat majority, I think, sets very bad precedence going forward,” Culter said at a news conference Tuesday. 

“If this is the template that the Democrats are going to use when we return to regular session, I think that speaks volumes about what their priorities are,” he added.

Republicans used most of their time during Tuesday’s floor debate signaling what they want the regular session’s operating rules to look like. A working group of seven House members is still hammering out those principles, and are not expected to share them until the special session is over.

The GOP is calling for a ban on gifts to lawmakers under the new rules, as well as a House Ethics committee that would help address sexual abuse claims within the chamber. Republicans tried and failed to insert those measures into the special session rules, and Cutler would not say whether the party will ask for those things during the regular session.

Democrats said they’re trying to use their House majority to quickly pass abuse survivor legislation, and argue Republicans are using “delay tactics” to slow the process down. 

“We are trying to make this process as streamlined as possible so that something that has been considered in several sessions previously can be considered,” Rep. Pete Schweyer said during floor debate.

The tension building between the two parties could damage efforts to install rules by next month and start state budget negotiations. Both Speaker Rozzi and Democratic Governor Josh Shapiro have pledged to work with Republicans on their agendas – a necessity since the state Senate is still controlled by the GOP.

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