HARRISBURG - All signs pointed to a frantic weekend in the Capitol as Gov. Corbett and the Republican-controlled legislature raced to meet the deadline to pass a state budget by midnight Sunday, as well as strike a compromise on the governor's three key initiatives - and perhaps help Philadelphia with its school funding crisis, as well.
By early Saturday, no deal had been struck on any of the so-called Big Three: privatizing the sale of wine and hard liquor; funding roads, bridges, and mass transit; and reining in public-employee pension costs.
Still, Senate leaders worked past midnight on the latest version of a liquor-privatization plan after Republicans who rule the 50-member chamber spent hours behind closed doors trying to secure the 26 votes needed to approve the bill.
It was not immediately clear whether they had succeeded in achieving that goal. The Senate's 23 Democrats have said they are united in voting against liquor privatization.
But about 12:20 a.m., formal debate finally began on myriad changes to the liquor bill.
Some of those changes reflected last-minute tweaks the Senate Republicans had made in their closed-door caucus, in an effort to gain a few more GOP votes.
Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Delaware) began outlining the bill's proposed changes in a floor speech at 12:25 a.m. One change would create a kind of no-competition zone around existing beer distributors in order to make it harder for some nearby food markets to offer beer.
Beer distributors have been a key interest group in the long-running argument over whether and how to privatize the liquor system. A prominent figure among distributors - and in Bucks County Republican politics - is Pasquale T. "Pat" Deon, the SEPTA board chairman who runs a beer distributorship in Fairless Hills.
The liquor issue capped a day of drama in which some House members mutinied over Medicaid expansion and lobbyists for liquor and transportation interests swarmed the hallways of the Capitol, trying, much like everyone else, to figure out the strategy for the next two days. Weather caused several key players to be away for several hours: Corbett, Senate President Joe Scarnati (R., Jefferson) and House Speaker Sam Smith (R., Jefferson) went to DuBois to tour flood damage there.
This much was clear: to be on time, the proposed $28 billion-plus budget must be passed by legislators and signed by Corbett by midnight Sunday. Corbett has said he wants action on his three initiatives by then, as well.
"They still have time to do it," Corbett spokesman Kevin Harley said Friday night. "The question is whether they have the will to get it done, and we think they do. Negotiations are continuing, and they are positive."
Unlike in Corbett's first two years in office, the sticking point this year is not the budget itself. In fact, the spending in it is mostly settled, though the administration and GOP legislative leaders still must make some key decisions, such as whether to freeze or scale back one of Corbett's largest business-tax cuts to date.
The big question marks are about the Big Three. Technically, none of them need to be completed by Sunday's budget deadline. But the governor is up for reelection next year and fighting against sagging approval ratings in public opinion polls. A big legislative win could help chip away at those numbers.
On Friday, liquor privatization and transportation funding appeared to to have the best shot at getting to a floor vote. At the same time, Senate leaders sent strong signals that a bill to make changes to the state's two biggest public-employee pension systems was likely to be relegated to the fall agenda.
The Senate appeared poised last night to consider the latest set of revisions to the liquor proposal. Details of that plan were not immediately available.
The House, meanwhile, had adjourned at 5:45 p.m., raising more than a few eyebrows in the Capitol, as it had been widely expected its members might start debating the transportation-funding bill.
Both the liquor and transportation-funding bills have to be voted on Saturday in at least one chamber if they have a chance at getting done by Sunday's midnight deadline. The two chambers are expected to work straight through the weekend.