HARRISBURG — Chaos reigned on the Pennsylvania Senate floor Wednesday amid debate on a Republican drive to kill a cash-assistance program for thousands of poor and disabled Pennsylvanians, as senators shouted and traded accusations, and Democrats walked out in protest.
The fight erupted as Republicans successfully pushed a bill to end the state’s General Assistance program, which provides monthly stipends of up to $200 to the needy for basic necessities. Although the day ended with an uneasy detente, the conflict cast a cloud over efforts by the GOP-led legislature and Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf to pass a new state budget, due Monday.
“This isn’t governing, this is chaos,” said Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati (R., Jefferson) of the scene on the Senate floor, later adding: “We are trying to work through getting the budget done. We are trying to get good things done for industries, Pennsylvanians, and working families. And now we are at a standstill.”
The clash in the Senate began after Democrats offered amendments to preserve the $40 million program, which serves about 11,000 people, including more than 5,600 in Philadelphia. The push to end it has sparked strong emotions on both sides. Advocates say the cash stipends help poor people — many of them disabled — pay for transportation and basic living necessities not covered by other social safety net programs. Many GOP lawmakers believe it is ripe for fraud.
So on Wednesday, Republicans, who hold the majority in the chamber, took advantage of a moment of confusion and used a technical maneuver to block attempts to save the program.
For a few moments, Scarnati took over the rostrum in the chamber, where Democratic Lt. Gov. John Fetterman normally presides. Fetterman had briefly walked down to the floor, where senators were shouting, in an effort to broker peace. In his absence, Scarnati picked up the gavel and, with a procedural vote, shut down any possibility of altering the bill.
Veteran senators from both parties could not remember a time when that had happened.
“He started throwing a fit and came up to the rostrum,” Fetterman said of Scarnati, adding that Republicans “invoked the nuclear option.”
Democratic senators promptly walked off the floor. When they returned, another screaming match ensued. Democratic Sen. Katie Muth of Montgomery County stood up to read a statement from someone who relies on the program. Republican senators shouted at Fetterman to stop her.
Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman (R., Centre) accused Fetterman of ignoring the chamber’s rules on debate.
“Your job is to enforce the rules of the Senate,” Corman hollered, “not to be a partisan hack.”
Wolf, who supports the program, now must decide whether to veto the bill — a decision that could impact final negotiations over other parts of the budget.
If he does so, the GOP would not have enough votes to override the veto if Democrats stick together, although a veto almost certainly would have repercussions in the budget negotiations.
On Wednesday, Scarnati complained to Wolf that members of his party had not followed the rules. When they returned later in the evening, Fetterman was not at the rostrum. Instead, Scarnati was running the chamber.
Senate Democrats openly derided their Republican colleagues for trying to slash the program and for shutting down debate on the measure.
“They shut down the voice of the people of Pennsylvania by shutting down the debate,” said State Sen. Vincent Hughes (D., Phila.).
Added Muth: "Who are we? If you’re not here fighting for the most vulnerable, why are you here?”
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette staff writer Kate Giammarise contributed to this article.