HARRISBURG - In just three days last week, the General Assembly tackled tort law, welfare, gun rights, school vouchers, a bill that empowers big builders, and another that some say would trounce abortion rights.
If there was any lingering doubt about who is in charge in the Capitol, the conversation in Harrisburg's halls of power last week put it to rest.
Republicans, who control the legislature and the governor's office, are pushing through an increasingly conservative agenda, the likes of which has not been seen here in decades - certainly not under Gov. Ed Rendell, a Democrat, or even Republican predecessors such as Tom Ridge and Dick Thornburgh.
The week left conservatives giddily humming the chorus to Etta James' rendition of "At Last," and Democrats muttering that years of hard work on issues important to them were being rolled back and that they felt powerless to stop it.
"I wouldn't call the agenda coming from Harrisburg conservative," said veteran Rep. Babette Josephs (D., Phila.), whose leanings tip to the liberal. "I would call it extreme."
Of course, the other side begs to differ. Bob Guzzardi, a conservative activist, landlord, and blogger in Philadelphia, said he was heartened by the news from the Capitol. He said he worried that some of the bills didn't go far enough or could lose steam later in the legislative process.
"The bills coming out of there are good, but I am only cautiously optimistic," Guzzardi said. "The trend is conservative, but I'm still waiting to see whether it sticks."
The 2010 national midterm elections set the stage for a more conservative stamp on fiscal and social issues, as voters frustrated with President Obama and the continued hardships of the recession gave Republicans control of 29 of 50 governorships and nearly as many statehouses.
Still, Pennsylvania has always been considered a moderate state, said political science professor and pollster G. Terry Madonna.
He, too, said wait and see. The question for him is whether the conservative shift is a momentary phenomenon or takes root in a state where elections often swing on suburban Republicans in the southeast, who tend to be fiscally conservative but socially liberal.
The legislature's actions last week offer some clues.
Liability in lawsuits. On Monday, the House gave final passage to the so-called fair share bill, which would limit the liability of multiple defendants in civil suits.
The bill, backed by statewide business groups, would protect defendants found to be less than 60 percent at fault in accidents or injuries - medical malpractice suits, for example - from having to pay more than their share of the damages. Current law holds all defendants liable for 100 percent of damages if codefendants can't pay.
Though the bill faces an uncertain fate in the Senate, Republicans portrayed it as a fix to what business groups (along with lawyers for hospitals and other "deep pocket" litigants) have long argued is a fundamentally unfair law. Until this year, Democrats, backed by plaintiff lawyers, had staved off efforts to undo it. They characterized last week's vote as a crushing blow to victims.
Abortion clinics. Also Monday, the House Health Committee endorsed a bill requiring clinics that perform abortions to meet the standards of outpatient surgery centers.
GOP proponents said that would prevent tragedies like those at the West Philadelphia abortion clinic run by Kermit Gosnell, who faces criminal charges. Opponents said it would regulate those clinics out of business and was a veiled attempt to curb access to abortions.
School vouchers. As Tuesday dawned, the ideological split emerged again, this time in the Senate. Many in the GOP support creating state-paid vouchers to give low-income pupils a way out of failing public schools, by helping their parents pay tuition at private or parochial schools. Most Democrats see it as doing the opposite - taking money away from the neediest school districts.
The voucher bill was almost but not quite put to a vote, amid talk of last-minute dissension in Republican ranks over its breadth and cost. But it is an issue Gov. Corbett says he supports; he even paid a rare visit to the Senate GOP caucus to air his views. So it will likely remain a front-burner policy item.
The "castle doctrine." In the House, legislators on Tuesday approved the so-called castle doctrine bill, which would expand the right of people, even if away from home, to use deadly force against attackers. Existing law requires people to try to retreat to safety before using such force.
The Senate had passed a similar measure, indicating the legislation is pretty much a done deal. Rendell vetoed a castle-doctrine bill in November, but Corbett has said he will sign it if it reaches his desk.
Welfare. The House also decided to take up and approve three bills of eight welfare measures, including one requiring more and tougher background checks for people receiving benefits.
Republicans predicted the measures would save money by trimming fraud from state welfare costs. The other five bills are expected to come up for votes soon.
Sprinklers. Most of the bills voted on last week face further legislative action. An exception was the so-called sprinkler bill, which won final approval in the House on Wednesday and headed to Corbett's desk.
The legislation, supported by homebuilders, would repeal a recent requirement to install sprinkler systems in new houses. Environmentalists are furious over a last-minute amendment that they say would amount to giving builders veto power over future changes to Pennsylvania's building code for improving energy efficiency, safety, and health.
Corbett has said he supports the sprinkler repeal but would review the amendment.
By week's end, Republicans could stand back to admire their handiwork as the legislature began its Easter break. House Majority Leader Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny) said his members were proving they could "get the job done."
Democrats were hardly enthusiastic.
"You have all these hot-button issues - guns, welfare, abortion - being taken up suddenly. And what you're seeing is that there tends to be an agreement ahead of time between the governor and the Republican majorities in both chambers," said Rep. Dan Frankel (D., Allegheny). "Because of that, they have the capacity to implement their entire conservative agenda."
Sen. Daylin Leach (D., Montgomery) called it "breathtaking" and warned that the result would be "an uphill avalanche of resources from the lower end of the economic spectrum to the higher end."
Not so, countered David W. Patti, president and chief executive officer of the Pennsylvania Business Council. He noted that many matters taken up last week, such as tort law and school vouchers, had been debated for years.
"It might seem like there is a big, conservative push on the issues, but that is only because there is a bigger polarization in America between conservatives and liberals," Patti said.
He said he supported the agenda but predicted it would slow.
"I think this is pretty normal when one party takes control," Patti said. "There is pent-up demand by their constituencies for certain things, and a desire by the new majority to show that there is action and that there will be change.
"There is this big crush," he said, "but then things eventually die out."