HARRISBURG - In a gambit that will either resolve Pennsylvania's budget stalemate or dash hopes for a compromise deal, House Republican leaders on Wednesday put a 24-hour deadline on a new push to support the $30.8 billion spending plan touted by Gov. Wolf and the Senate.
Emerging from a closed-door meeting with Wolf, lawmakers said a vote on a tax plan - the budget's central pillar - could come Thursday. If it passes, a final budget package could land on Wolf's desk by the weekend.
Left unspecified was which taxes legislators will be asked to impose or raise - a key factor in determining if the plan has the votes to pass. Last month, a lack of House support sank a different proposal by Wolf and Senate leaders that called for hikes in the sales tax and a reduction in property taxes.
If the latest plan fails, House Majority Leader Dave Reed (R., Indiana) said, Republicans will push to quickly pass an extended stopgap budget. That would free up cash for schools and nonprofits that have struggled during the impasse but likely would abandon many aspects of the so-called framework agreement supported by Wolf.
"In 24 hours, we're going to find out whether the tax votes are actually there in the House," Reed said Wednesday afternoon.
The sudden plot shift emerged after days of private negotiations among House members - and nearly 51/2 months after the state's July 1 budget deadline. School districts have borrowed nearly $900 million to stay open, and nonprofits have cut services or borrowed their way to survival.
The state's longest budget impasse in recent history came in 2003, when lawmakers did not pass a final plan until Dec. 22.
The announcement Wednesday was the first time that Wolf and House and Senate leaders had appeared together since before Thanksgiving. At that point, they were touting a proposal that called for increasing the overall budget, boosting school funding by $350 million, and enacting changes to the state's liquor and pension systems.
The Senate passed nearly every piece of that agreement last week, except a tax package to help fund it.
House members have balked at approving the deal until they know which taxes might rise.
Even after announcing plans Wednesday for a likely vote on the plan, none of the leaders who emerged from the talk with Wolf - including Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman (R., Centre), House Speaker Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny), and the governor himself - would specify which taxes lawmakers are likely to be asked to raise or impose.
Reed said one proposal included some type of modification to the sales tax. Others said a number of options were on the table.
Corman warned: "Trust me, nothing's in it until it's all in it."
Lawmakers also declined to predict whether any revenue source had enough support to pass both chambers.
Neither Reed nor Turzai would describe what an alternative stopgap plan would look like - or how it would be implemented. Wolf vetoed a similar proposal this year.
"We'll see what options are available," Turzai said, adding that he hoped one plan or another was finalized by Saturday.
As the stalemate has dragged on, the tax question has been perhaps the central issue preventing a final agreement.
Still, with potential disagreements between the House and Senate on other issues - from how the new school funding would be distributed, to how and where wine would be sold under a liquor reform proposal - it was not clear whether an agreement on taxes would pave the way for a seamless overall agreement.
Wolf dodged questions Wednesday on what other elements may have been resolved, saying only that he was "committed to the framework."
"This was a broad agreement for something that's going to move all of us forward," he said. "All of us have to be part of this."